Tag Archives: letterman

On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!

My 11:35 PM TV Comedy Provider

It’s not that I think Jimmy Fallon is a bad “Tonight Show” host. I’m pleased with my current provider of 11:35 PM comedy services, I have sampled the alternatives, and I feel no desire to switch providers at this time.

(So, NBC boiler room: please stop cold-calling my house.)

The sole point of this post is that “The Tonight Show” is simply not a product I have any kind of use for. I thought the reasons why that’s true were worth writing about, since they speak to what I like and don’t like about late-night talk shows.

 

The Sincerity Gap

Subjectively? I think Fallon has all of the strengths of a great talk show guest but not a whole lot to offer to me as a host. I get a real “Merv Griffin” vibe off of the guy. All of his guests are awesome. He’s such a total fan of all of them, and some of them are his really great friend. He always can’t believe he gets to sit here and meet [him/her/hand puppet].

He does some fine sketch comedy on “Tonight.” It all falls apart for me when he’s at the desk. Take, for instance, the Very Much Viral video of him singing with Billy Joel on his iPad.

If “Tonight” were more geared toward my own tastes, Jimmy and Billy would retire to the stage, where the iPad and the mics are set up, and perform it as a musical number. Instead, he has to put up the pretense that he “had this great idea” and hey, let’s try singing a song, any song, really, he hadn’t really put any thought into it, and who knows if it’ll work out but we’re here to play around and have fun, right? Then onward to what was clearly a very rehearsed number whose  success or failure boiled down to whether or not an asteroid would strike during the segment.

This is nothing new. I tuned in occasionally during Fallon’s “Late Night” run and I was consistently put off by the fake sincerity and “aw shucks…this is…this is so crazy that I’m here doing this with you!” pose. Get a load of another viral video, where he and the band and Robin Thicke perform “Blurred Lines” on kids’ instruments:

It’s entertaining; I enjoyed it enough to Tweet out the link. I’m just put off by the pretense of Jimmy reaching up and “turning on the camera.” Because hey, everyone, this is your good pal Jimmy! He and his other good friends are just hanging out in the dressing room, and then he thought, hey! Let’s record a video and put it on YouTube, like everybody does when they’re just hanging out with their good friends (in a room that’s been set up with professional lighting and sound)!

It’s evocative of those terrible variety shows of the Sixties. Audiences of the day expected certain conventions. It was totally unacceptable to suggest that Bing Crosby was there singing a duet with a young pop star because they both had albums to promote and the producers picked a song that suited both of them and then they performed it together after a bunch of rehearsals. Instead, this great duet needed to be wrapped in layers of bulky pretense. They’re such big fans of each other, and I was just passing through and happened to see you guys recording, and it would be such a thrill if we could sing a song together…

It’s still entertaining. But it’s not a convention that makes much sense to people born after 1960. It comes across as a “daytime TV” sort of vibe. On late night, this attitude is a huge step backwards. Part of the wisdom of the late night TV revolution that started with “Saturday Night Live” and solidified with the Rise of Letterman was the doing-away of such unnecessary artifice. It’s practically a measure of respect for the audience; this only needs to be entertaining.

 

Hashtag #IGotNothingHere

Fallon’s “Tonight Show” also makes me feel like I’m a chump for watching the show in the form in which it’s broadcast. It’s not conceived as an hour of entertainment: it’s produced as a string of (hopefully) viral videos, interrupted by hashtags and begging for social media promotion.

If Fallon has the kind of quick mental or verbal agility that I like to see in a host, he’s kept those skills well-hidden. Fallon, the times I’ve watched him, can only laugh at the guests’ jokes, defuse their punchlines by praising them too early, and set up the next “spontaneous” bit. Every other host, it seems, can maintain a conversation with a guest; there’s an active and agile wit. Some hosts parry with guests, some trade verbal jazz licks with them. Carson was famous for his ability to do both, or to be the straight man who sets up the ball for the guest to spike.

Fallon? He’s just…there. At times, he appears to be like an audience member who won a “Co-Host ‘Tonight’ For A Night” contest. (“Oh my God, I can’t believe I’m really here…I’m totally going to Facebook this right now…”)

The show cuts interviews short to play party games. And it seems like “Tonight” has found a way to bleach the spontaneity and energy from those segments, too. This stuff just doesn’t register to me as comedy. It’s more like watching four people I don’t know playing “Scattergories.” It’s as interesting to me as viewing a wedding video when I don’t know any of the participants and at no point does a key structural support in the gazebo fail and tip the entire wedding party into a lake.

Overall, these things seem like a dodge to get Fallon out from behind the desk, where he can’t play to his strengths. Again: good sketch comic, good talk show guest…not a strong talk show host. He’s been at this gig for five years. It’s clear that these are skills he can’t cultivate, or that (fair enough) this isn’t a show that wants to devote a whole lot of time to a type of entertainment that I enjoy.

Compare and contrast all of this with “TableTop,” a show about tabletop gaming created and hosted by Wil Wheaton:

Or even better: check out Chris Hardwick on the Comedy Central game show “@Midnight”:

He brings a young, fresh, and relevant approach without the stink of a seven-hour network meeting in which 54-year-old executives kept referring to “the Twitters” and how important it is to “social” everything.

I admit to having prejudices. The hashtaggy, “here’s something we found on Reddit” nature of @Midnight turned me off at first but I was totally wrong. Hardwick is a terrific host. These “found items” are just a catalyst for his own comedy and for the wits of his guests. It’s in not a crutch, like the recurring Fallon segment in which he numbly reads a series of jokes sent in by viewers via Twitter. (Seriously, “Tonight”? When did you revise your Terms Of Service to obligate us to write your jokes for you?)

How great would a Chris Hardwick-hosted talk show be? Very. Very much great. His Nerdist podcast consists of long interviews in which he’s an active participant without crowding out the guest. And he creates an environment that’s very safe for the guest (I say this as a neutral observation, not as criticism or praise) without coming within fifty yards of The Merv Griffin Effect.

Has he been lined up on the secret on-deck circle for Dave? If not…shouldn’t he be? To my eye, he’s the best talent for this kind of job, at least of the folks who are high enough in profile that I’d be aware of them.

[well]

Aside: I suddenly realize that the farm system for “the next great network talk show host” ought to include podcasters. They’re producing their own shows and developing their own styles through dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of interviews, and they arrive on the set as fully-formed hosts. Kevin Pollak can roll into a talk show set with his engine already spooled up and ready to run. Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann, John HodgmanJesse Thorn, on and on.

Did John Oliver’s tenure as summer host of “The Daily Show” get him own HBO news comedy show? Certainly, but the skills that made him a killer host, and the ones that’ll make “Last Week Tonight” a hit, are the ones he honed with Andy Zaltzman through more than 250 weekly episodes of “The Bugle.”

I think that the next great host won’t be found in front of the fake wall of a comedy club. He or she is sitting behind a cheap USB microphone propped up on a kitchen table. End Aside.

[/well]

 

What Even Constitutes ‘The Jimmy Fallon Style Of Comedy’, Anyway?

Carson described the key to these kinds of shows perfectly: “In the end, it’s all about the person behind the desk.” Fallon? He’s a total blank to me. Leno, Letterman, Kimmel, Conan, Colbert, even Ellen…they put their signatures on their shows. I honestly think that Lorne Michaels could swap in almost anyone with SNL experience and “Tonight” would still be the exact same program, doing the same jokes and the same material. It’s a producer’s show, in a genre that’s traditionally been defined by the host’s personality.

 

Disclaimer

Despite all of the above, I sure wouldn’t say that Fallon was a bad choice to replace Leno, that “Tonight” isn’t funny, that he’s objectively a bad host. If you think he and the show are great, you’re absolutely correct. You never, ever need to defend the reasons why you like something.

And I also have to acknowledge that comedy styles are on wheels that keep turning around. “Let’s drop the fawning and the fake sincerity” was the signature of the shows that came along when I was a teenager. We were sick of that sort of thing. Today’s young viewers might be equally sick of a generation of weary hosts who sometimes seem to sit at their desks like Han Solo, chatting amiably with their guest while preparing to unload a sarcasm-blaster into them.

These new hosts are my age (Fallon is just a few years younger than me) but they’re pitching to people who are maybe as tired of Letterman (Conan, Kimmel)-style comedy as we were of Merv when we were their age.

I should also point out that the line between insincerity (“Let’s pretend that this thing where sing into my iPad was spontaneous”) and mere showmanship (“It’ll look much cooler if I simply present the iPad at my desk and we do it right there”) is sometimes a fuzzy one.

Is Fallon completely sincere? I admit that I have no way of knowing that he’s faking it. If he’s sincere, I just don’t see it. Either way, “Tonight” comes across as though I’m meant to be happy for this guy that he gets to be the host of this awesome show and get to meet such amazing people and do such crazy things.

I mean, I’d be happy for him if he were a friend of mine. As-is? He’s someone who gets paid millions and millions of dollars to do a job. He and I have a relationship in which he should be trying harder to entertain me, not burbling about how what a good time he’s having.

So who’s my Provider Of Late-Night Comedy Services? No surprise.

 

It’s Dave.

It’s still Letterman. No show comes close, as far as I’m concerned.

I concede that this kind of traditional desk-and-chair show is old-fashioned. I doubt that the concept will survive long after Dave chooses to retire. But night after night, Dave delivers the goods and proves why this time-worn format is a killer when the right person is behind the desk.

As a longtime viewer, I’m thoroughly impressed by how skillfully the show has adjusted Dave’s persona over the decades. The most common criticism of Dave is that he’s just phoning it in at this point. Hogwash. When he came on the scene in the early Eighties, he completely deconstructed the talk show format. You can point to Steve Allen and other hosts that might have done similar bits here and there, but Dave’s effect on the talk show format was identical to the effect that the Mac had on desktop computers, and the iPhone had on phones. Before, they were all like this. After, they were all mostly like Dave’s show. It’s conclusive proof that Dave (and the producers and writers he gathered around him) created a revolution, rather than merely continuing a transition that was already in progress.

When Dave was in his Thirties, he arrived at 30 Rock and proceeded to wreck the joint, poking fun at the absurdity of talk-show traditions and mocking the heaping insincerities of the form. Things like, I dunno: the convention where the host tells the guest that he’s such a fan this is such a crazy honor for me and can I please talk you into doing a number, this was totally unrehearsed, but…

Dave is now in his Sixties, not his Thirties. He’s not the young punk who busts in and smashes up the furniture. Now, he’s the legend who built something worth preserving.

I put it to you that there is nothing sillier than a man in his Sixties dressing in Velcro and launching himself at a wall. Nothing less sincere than a Kennedy Center honoree whose net worth can be expressed as a fraction of a billion dollars promising his audience that he’s here to rip The Establishment a new one.

The 21st-century version of Letterman’s show is brilliant. Dave portrays the part of the Establishment. He’s now the befuddled old guy who doesn’t understand why a staffer half his age is walking on stage and doing something crazy. He’s the one who’s out of step because he didn’t go to rehearsal. He’s the guy who has to be told to take his pills, by an assistant who’s frankly tired of his nonsense by now.

I dismiss the idea that Dave’s phoning it in and the show it just keeping the time slot warm at this point. Yes, I’m well aware that guests are pre-interviewed. In fact, I like the fact that he’s clearly scanning a blue sheet of notes that he’s likely seeing for the very first time. Overall, the tone of the show is that this set is Dave’s office, and he comes here to put in a day’s work and then go home.

Again, it’s a personal preference. I can’t stand Fallon’s “Gosh! What a fun time we’re all having! It’s like a crazy party in here, huh?” pose. I actively enjoy the no-BS environment at Letterman’s desk. There is zero pretense. This movie star wouldn’t be sitting there if he or she didn’t have a movie or TV show to promote, and Dave wouldn’t be talking to them if he didn’t have a show to do. He knows it, the guest knows it, the audience knows it. Everyone can still have a great time and a good conversation.

I also dismiss the charge that Dave is just a grumpy old man. Are there nights when he appears to be genuinely irked, frustrated, and eager for his long weekend? Sure. It’s part of what makes the show so good: Dave is a human being, capable of feeling and expressing emotion.

The upside of this arrangement is that it’s 0bvious when he genuinely liked a joke, or is totally hitting it off with a guest, or is really into the band who just performed.

The first act at his desk is often amazing, honest stuff: he’s spoken about births, deaths, news items that affected him greatly, scandals that amused the hell out of him. All extemporaneous, all honest, and almost never seen on other shows between 11:35 and midnight. There is currently no other show that would book a Medal of Honor recipient and no other host that can spend three acts of the show in an honest, at-times uncomfortable conversations about the cost of life in the military.

I’ll take Dave’s highs and lows over Fallon’s “Everthing is awesome, all the time!” persona, or Leno’s consistently calm, even, detachment.

My opinion of Jay Leno has gone way up over the years. I’ve lost my frustration with his middlebrow humor. I’ve grown to appreciate the skills he put on display during that great first half hour of “The Tonight Show.” And now that I’ve discovered his YouTube channel, I’m enjoying the more personal-style work he’s doing outside of the “write joke, tell joke, get check” environment. That’s the more human Jay. “Tonight Show” Jay is “cutthroat” Jay, the joke machine that has to fire at full efficiency.

Despite my respect for Leno, when I think about the differences between Leno and Letterman, I always come back to their first shows after 9/11. Dave, the broadcaster, was capable of speaking truthfully and straight from the soul, expressing himself with connection and clarity, without losing control of his emotions.

Jay — in the toughest spot that any late night host will ever find him or herself in, let’s acknowledge that — seemed unable to reach through that camera lens. Like everybody else in America during that week (with the possible exception of Dave) he didn’t know what to say or how to say it. He was visibly uncomfortable with the task of needing to address something so weighty, or (as it would be until his final couple of years on “Tonight”) to let the audience see exactly what he was feeling and thinking. He rolled out a charity motorcycle for his guests to sign.

 

What about the others?

I respect Jimmy Kimmel, but the cruelty factor of his show is a big turnoff. I didn’t like it when Leno used to offer random people on the street or in an apartment building a chance to make themselves look like idiots in front of America. Kimmel’s comedy is a level below that. It seems to revel in destroying people, with or without their buy-in.

I happened to tune in on a night when he did a cooking segment sketch with a recurring character: a man in drag pretending to be the hysterically-angry lady from a viral video that was big at the time. When I first saw the original video, I immediately thought “undiagnosed mental illness.” Or, that some idiot with an iPhone happened to catch this woman having a very, very bad day, and instead of giving her some peace, privacy, and sympathy — or, understandably, making a private video record of what was going down in case things went very badly later — they decided to publish that video to the whole world.

And now, Kimmel is humiliating this woman on national television on a regular basis. Did she bargain for that? Even if she was totally in the wrong when she flew off the handle, did she deserve that? Also: the cooking segment had a desperate “Dancing Itos” vibe and it seemed a little desperate.

Conan always has a simmering anger underneath his comedy. Usually, he manipulates that to his advantage. Sometimes, it boils to the surface and makes me uncomfortable. But he’s doing the best Carson-style desk show on TV, apart from Dave’s, and he has some hella-talented comedy performers helping him out in front of the camera. Conan’s show is about wit, and agility, and the ability to make even a pre-planned bit look spontaneous.

His taped segments are well-conceived, executed, and edited; they’re the best return on investment of any of the video links that circulate during a weekday afternoon.

I’ve been watching “The Daily Show” a lot less since my favorite contributors left the show. After so many years, I feel like I’ve seen Jon Stewart’s entire bag of performance tricks and that nothing he does can really surprise or delight me any more. And once every couple of weeks, he says something that truly disgusts me. Such as when he has no joke to make about the substance of a politician’s speech and instead, he just makes fun of the man’s speech impediment. That’s the instinct a sixth-grade school bully when he knows he has enough people around him to join in the taunting, not the host of a Peabody-winning show with a reputation for insightful social commentary.

Some day, Stephen Colbert will stop doing his show and then I’ll be a very, very sad viewer. The Colbert Report is nine years old and the well isn’t even close to running dry. His skills as a performer are razor sharp and I boggle at his ability to have Stephen Colbert, the fictional character, say something horrifying and hurtful while the kindness and good intentions of Stephen Colbert, the improvisational comedian, shines right through.

I haven’t seen Seth Myers’ “Late Night” and probably never will. I pass no judgment on him or the show whatsoever. I’m completely happy with my 12:35 provider of late night comedy and I’m not even curious about the alternatives.

Night after night, Craig Ferguson pulls off the minor miracle of making an hour of network television look completely unplanned and improvised. “The Late Late Show” appears to be hosted by a man who is surprised that he hasn’t been fired already and thinks that if he plays his cards right, tonight might be the night. His sidekicks are an animatronic robot skeleton and a pantomime horse and a bandleader who never steps out from behind the curtains. Why? Each seemed like a good idea at the time and a 12:35 AM show doesn’t have to run things through a lot of executives first.

 

Preulogy

But the show I’ll miss most of all is “The Late Show.”

I’ll admit that part of it is due to sentimentality. Carson was funny, but he was my parents’ talk show host. Letterman belonged to us. Technically, college students five to ten years older than me, all right. But I still vividly remember the first time I was able to see “Late Night” as it aired, thanks to a clock radio with a built-in 5″ TV that I managed to snag for next to nothing at a clearance sale and snuck into my bedroom. At first, the start of “Late Night With David Letterman” was my sign that I must be in bed now. By my college years, 12:30 AM meant it was time to take a break for an hour, then go back to the keyboard or the books until 3 or 4. A tradition I mostly still keep.

Nostalgia, schm…

(Wow, you really can’t write out “schmnostalgia” and make that joke work.)

Well, I’m saying that nostalgia has nothing to do with my selection of Dave as my late-night talk show host. He delivers the goods, for real, night after night. And yes, that’s partly due to the hard work of a large and loyal staff. I’m well aware that there’s not a great chance that a guest will throw something at Dave that isn’t somewhere on that sheet of blue paper in front of him.

But it’s all about the person behind the desk. He doesn’t need a crutch, he doesn’t need a rescue, he doesn’t need a gimmick, and he doesn’t need to beg to be liked. He has that weird ability to have an actual conversation with someone and find the funny. He also has that beguiling ability to spot a road into a serious issue, and pull the wagons off of the Funny Trail.

Dave is, beyond a doubt, the last of his kind. The long shadow of Johnny Carson is the only thing that keeps me from adding “…and the finest host of this kind of show there ever will be.” (Kudos to Steve Allen but I’ve never been able to see enough of his shows to develop a strong opinion. There’s something to be said about maintaining this level of work for three decades, too.)

Even so, I can only agree that Carson was different, not better. Some day, Dave will choose to retire (or he’ll drown in a trout stream or something). Can the “desk and a chair” talk show format live on without him? I suppose that his CBS show serves as a lone anchor of credibility for the whole concept.

Certainly, nobody will describe any of the remaining hosts as “the king of late night.” I like some of these hosts more than others, but the crown isn’t a good fit on any of them.

I don’t suppose for even a second that Kimmel and Conan will throw their shows into funeral pyre when Dave moves on (to retirement or Johnny’s guest chair in the sky). But maybe when it’s time for Kimmel to renew, he’ll wonder why he needs to keep working; if he can’t do what Dave is doing, is it worth doing at all? And maybe Conan will change his set around and remove the desk, to freshen the show up a little.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Fallon will have already switched out the desk and the sofa for a giant ballpit that he and his guests can play in.

Wheeee! This is awesome, isn’t it? I can’t believe it! It’s crazy! Hey, we should totally Instagram a picture from here, right?

The Warming Holiday Glow Of Retina

You missed Darlene Love’s annual performance of “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)” on Friday despite my explicit command to watch it?

I am displeased. But the holiday season has left me in an indulgent mood, so here it is, courtesy of YouTube.

I place this one in the top three of all time. Easily. Putting Paul in the middle of the stage was a terrific move. Among my favorite details of this performance, year after year, is seeing the absolute glee with which Paul Shaffer performs. It’s the same sort of facial expressions you see in the dogpile at home plate when a team wins the World Series. You’re seeing experienced, professional adults suddenly reverting to who they were at ten years old. Little Leaguers fantasized about the World Series and in 1963 14-year-old musicians listening to transistor radios fantasied about playing on a Phil Spector-produced Darlene Love record.

Enjoy this Late Show-produced supercut of her performances over the years:

I wonder if they’ve ever considered closing down 53rd Street and making it a big, open-air performance? They’ve done it a few times for other musical acts. Boy, I’d definitely jump on an Amtrak train to see that one. With the Macy’s Parade and the Rockefeller Center tree lighting, it’d be a great complement to NYC’s other public holiday events.

How did the show solve the “No Jay Thomas” problem? By having John McEnroe tell the Lone Ranger story:

…And then they had him try to knock the meatball off of the tree by serving tennis balls at it.

He eventually got the job done by charging the tree like it was the umpire chair and the meatball had just made a call McEnroe didn’t like. I’m surprised that the show didn’t have a tennis ball serving machine standing by.

All in all another fabulous show. The only missing element was Paul Shaffer singing “O Holy Night,” though it’s possible that this part of the show is going the way of the “Viewer Mail” segment, if it hasn’t already.

While I’m sharing holiday music videos, get a load of this one of “O Holy Night,” performed at Boston’s Museum Of Fine Arts last weekend.

“O Holy Night” is far and away my favorite Christmas song. A good one will get me tearing up. A great one will unleash the waterworks. This is a great one. The vocal performance, the arrangement, the presentation…this, to me, is a perfect encapsulation of the meaning of Christmas for people of the Christian faith. If you’re not Christian, I think it represents a perfect expression of peace and joy.

The video’s title describes it as a “flash mob,” which is why I clicked the link with a certain cynical sense of weariness. It wasn’t a flash mob at all. In truth, the organizers had solved the problem of beginning a public performance. The music chairs and stands and mics had been set up in this public space. How to get the crowd to quiet down and pay attention? Well, you just have the cellist take his seat and hold a note for a long time. People will get the picture. When the crowd is ready, the rest of the musicians drift in and add to the music.

Speaking of “getting the picture”…I hope that if I were ever to stumble across such a fine performance, I’d have enough self-discipline to keep my phone or my camera stowed.

I’m not even criticizing the dozens of people who held up devices. It’s not totally a bad instinct. Nobody could have foreseen how significant these little devices would become after they started shipping with halfway decent cameras. Anyone could have guessed that folks would take more photos and share them readily with friends and family. That’s only the most obvious impact, however.

Our phones become digital storehouses for our experiences. Like the mausoleum of an ancient Egyptian king, we’re surrounded by the artifacts of our lives. Whenever we tap a button, open the “Pictures” roll, and flick our thumbs over the screen, we relive all of these casual moments we’ve collected since the last time we switched phones. If you set up your new phone by doing a full restore from your own phone, you’re carrying your lifetime with you.

So I understand the impulse to come away from this most joyous and unexpected performance with some sort of tangible memento. I know I couldn’t have resisted firing off a few shots. But it’s so much better to watch it live and in 3D, instead of through a little LCD or LED screen.

I imagine if I had been there, I wouldn’t even been watching it live at all. Music this beautiful is enhanced when you close your eyes and devote all of your CPU cores to processing the sound. I would have been standing there with my eyes shut and with the biggest grin on my face you’ve ever seen.

This is a clumsy compliment but it’s genuine: my sole disappointment with this video is that there isn’t a “Buy It Now” button anywhere nearby. If the audio recording is for sale anywhere, I haven’t found it…and I spent twenty minutes searching.

Thankfully, there are YouTube downloader apps, and a feature in QuickTime Player that allows you to save just the audio of a movie file. But rest assured that the moment I’m presented with the opportunity to give these people money, I will.

Programming Note For Those With Taste

The David Letterman Christmas Spectacular — which isn’t the official title of the last new Letterman show before Christmas but absolutely ought to be — is airing this Friday night. Please check your calendar, set your DVR, wind your watches, block your hats, and nog any eggs whose palatability could be improved by such a procedure.

This show is a beloved holiday tradition in my house. For decades, the show’s followed this same template:

Paul Shaffer tells the story of a Cher Christmas special that aired in the 70s, and then does his impression of Cher singing “O Holy Night”:

Jay Thomas comes on and goes into what Dave has endorsed as The Greatest Talk Show Guest Story Ever Told:

And then Jay and Dave compete in the Late Show Holiday Quarterback Challenge. They take turns chucking footballs at the meatball on top of the Late Show Christmas tree until one of them knocks it off.

“Why is there a meatball on the top of the tree?” you may well ask. You may also ask why it’s on top of a souvenir Empire State Building that’s on top of a large cheese pizza. The original reason for it is no longer relevant because, like all family traditions, the correct answer is now “Because it’s Christmas. And at Christmastime, we always put a cheese pizza on top of the tree, and then cover the top spiky branch with a souvenir of the Empire State Building, and then plop a giant meatball on top of the whole thing.”

Then there’s a guest, and then there’s the moment the whole show has been building towards: Darlene Love sings “Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)”.

There’s such obvious joy on every square foot of that stage. Chorus, strings, extra horns, the blonde curly-haired keyboardist who supplements Paul in the keyboard pit every time an arrangement on the show calls for four hands (I can’t believe I couldn’t find her name on Google), the fake snow, the special lighting…it’s obvious that the whole show derives enormous pride and pleasure in these three or four minutes. As well they should!

[Edited to add: reader Tim Schwab suggests that the band’s second keyboardist is Bette Sussman. Yup.]

Am I spoiling it for you by embedding all of these clips? Of course not. Is it spoiling your family Christmas party to know in advance that your Aunt is going to play “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” on a concertina, that your grandfather will wear the same Santa tie that he wears every year, and that your Mom will be bringing those mini pecan pies that she bakes inside muffin tins? Of course not. I look forward to this for weeks for the same reason why I usually order the same sandwich at my favorite diner. I loved it the last time and I know I’m going to love it the next time.

I’m informed that Jay Thomas won’t be telling his story or hurling a pig product at a cow product this year. Dash it. Well, I’m sure that they’ll find a way to use that time that will provoke Letterman fans to say “Hey, remember that one Christmas when they…” for many years to come.

I’ve always felt some sympathy for the one “normal” guest booked for that show. Everyone else on that stage has an established, eagerly-anticipated part to play. The guest probably feels like they’re joining their boyfriend or girlfriend’s family Christmas dinner for the first party. Should they join in on the traditions, or wait until they feel entitled?

This year, they’ve got Kristen Wiig, who clearly knows how to make some funny in any situation. Actually, by this time in the “Anchorman 2” promotional campaign, I reckon she can make some funny and plug the movie in any situation up to and partially through the Biblical apocalypse. If Dave got raptured during the interview, she’d probably slide into the empty chair and use some of her anchordesk material, barely even noticing the angels as they cleave their way through the audience with swords of purifying fire.

(You have to admit: we’ve been hearing an awful lot about this movie for a very long time.)

When Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” he intended to document and popularize ways to celebrate the holiday. It was like one of those Martha Stewart Christmas magazines, only the polar opposite of smug and insufferable. The sole downside of that book is that it’s probably guilted a lot of people into trying to honor the Dickens tradition instead of anticipating and enjoying events and celebrations that have some personal relevance.

I do not go caroling, I don’t cook a goose, and though I’ve attended lots of Christmas parties, I’ve never polished and buffed my calves in advance in hopes that they would “shine like moons”, as Old Mr. Fezziwig’s did.

But I do watch the David Letterman Christmas Show. I’m keeping Christmas my own way and am made quite glad of it.

AMA with Rob Burnett (Longtime Letterman exec. producer)

As a writer, producer, and executive, Rob Burnett has worked for and with (well, okay, given the flow of money: mostly “for”) David Letterman since “Late Night”‘s early days, as a series of YouTube videos of Dave’s cats wearing adorable things on their heads. Recently, he did a Q&A on Reddit that’s very much worth reading.

My favorite quote, in which he talks about dealing with difficult guests and people:

Occasionally a publicist might get aggressive. I’ll leave the names out because we have to work with these people, but once I remember a publicist threatening to pull a guest because he/she/it didn’t like the way we had formatted the show. Specifically, the order of the guests. I politely told he/she/it that they couldn’t tell us how to format our show, much as I would never tell he/she/it how to producer their movie/album/book.

The publicist turned to his/her/its assistant publicist and said, “Call Jay and see if he has an opening.” At which point I turned to our talent booker and said, “Call Tom Brokaw and see if he’s available for tonight.”

Reddit: I am Rob Burnett, Executive Producer of the Late Show with David Letterman, and a writer/director/producer of television and movies.

Jay Leno: The Self-Styled Forrest Gump of Late Night?

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Dave told it like it is last night: yes, it’s funnnnn to watch a showbiz disaster unfold when (a) you know that nobody involved is going to be physically harmed, and more importantly (b) you’re just as certain that neither you nor anybody you know personally is involved in any way. These late-night shakeups have been one hell of an entertaining distraction for me ever since last Thursday, when everybody first encountered the rumor that NBC was close to canceling the Jay Leno Show.

And by “distraction” I’m not just talking about the time I’ve lost on Gawker.com, either. I’ve been watching both Jay and Conan regularly for the first time since either hosts’ shows debuted.

It’s not like I thought either of these were terrible shows. I didn’t get in the habit of watching Jay because he was the same guy doing the same comedy that I didn’t watch at 11:35. And I always liked Conan. But I didn’t watch his Tonight Show simply because I was very happy with my current providers of late-night comedy and I wasn’t looking to switch to a different service at this time.

That’s really what we’re talking about. For all the talk about Dave being too grumpy or Jay diluting his show to please the widest demographic or Conan being freakishly gangly and pasty, the battle between these three isn’t a question of “who’s the true King Of Late Night?” No, it’s a case of there being three very good comedy products out in front of a marketplace of people with very different entertainment needs. You’re about as likely to get me to switch from Dave or Craig as you are to get me to drop Coca-Cola for any other brand. I’ve tasted Pepsi and I acknowledge that it’s a fine beverage. But it’s just not what I’m looking for. And you were lucky to get me to sample it in the first place.

I’m watching Conan as I write this. The man’s on fire; he’s been razor-sharp all week long. I can’t say how much progress he made in the months since I watched his debut — back then, I thought he was understandably awkward, feeling his way around through the earlier time and the intimidating legacy of Johnny’s chair — but tonight I see a man who’s completely in command of his stage, who knows what he wants to accomplish with every joke, and who’s as fearless as a man who no longer knows or cares how many shows he has left.

Leno’s been swinging hard, too. Though I think he’s been misstepping pretty severely in his monologues. When Conan tells jokes about how NBC is screwing him out of a job, I can only nod in sympathy. When Jay makes those same jokes, I can only blink and wonder if he just said what I thought he said. Just what does Leno have to be upset about? He created a show that met certain minimums of profitability but which (by some estimates) was costing local affiliates’ 11 PM news shows 25% of their viewership every night. The stations were in open revolt, so NBC pulled the plug on Jay’s show and put him back on at 11:35.

And this screws him over…how?

For the very first time since Leno started appearing on Dave’s old NBC show, liking Jay Leno is requiring a certain amount of effort on my part. This past week’s events have encouraged me to think about the milestones of his late-night career in a new light:

Leno’s manager gets impatient and schemes to push Johnny Carson out of his own show. According to Bill Carter of The New York Times — the Journalist Of Record in the late-night wars — NBC was in no rush to push Johnny Carson towards retirement. Despite their concerns about his aging audience, competition from younger hosts, and the fact that CBS and others were actively courting Leno to host his own competing 11:30 show, they were apparently confident that he’d make that choice on his own before long. So Leno’s manager, Helen Kushnick, planted an embarrassing unsourced front-page screaming-headline story in the New York Post about the network’s frustrations with Carson and their desire to hand The Tonight Show to Leno, his obvious successor, as soon as possible. Carson was so steamed about the headline that he didn’t even want to stick around for his 30th anniversary with the show, nor did he bother to inform NBC in advance that he’d be using a routine presentation in front of an auditorium of NBC affiliates to announce his speedy departure.

Carter reported that Leno had asked his manager point-blank if she’d been involved in the Post story, and that she’d lied to him. He also says that their relationship was a deeply complicated one, and suggests that Jay had long-since lost interest in digging too deeply into how she got things done.

Leno agrees to give up The Tonight Show in five years’ time. I recall that when he made the announcement on his show, he cited how caustic the previous transition of hosts had been, and how longterm relationships had been damaged, and that despite the #1 rating he was pulling in as host of “Tonight,” he wanted to ensure that history wouldn’t repeat itself. From Bill Carter’s September, 2004 Times piece reporting the transition:

NBC executives said yesterday that Mr. Leno was instrumental in making the new arrangement, having agreed when he signed his latest deal in March, that he would be willing to step aside for Mr. O’Brien in 2009. He will be 59 at that point, while Mr. O’Brien will be 46.

In a statement, Mr. Leno said: “When I signed my new contract, I felt that the timing was right to plan for my successor, and there is no one more qualified than Conan. Plus, I promised my wife, Mavis, I would take her out for dinner before I turned 60.”

But last November, in a widely-quoted interview with Broadcasting & Cable Magazine, Leno was singing a slightly different tune. He didn’t disagree with the interviewer’s (leading) question about being yanked off the air with his show #1 in the ratings, and talked of fighting windmills at NBC. Sure, Carson wasn’t exactly quiet about his disappointment with the network, but then again his retirement announcement wasn’t filled with romantic notions of happily stepping aside to ensure a smooth transition for the next guy.

From the interview:

Has your relationship with NBC changed throughout all this?

I have the same friends I had in high school, and these [at NBC] are acquaintances. You have a business relationship; as long as you are making money for someone, you are friends. And when you’re not making money for someone, you’re not friends. I get it….As long I’m making money for the company, I will be here. When I’m not making money for the company, I won’t be here, and I understand how that works.

At the time, the most widely-circulated line from the interview concerned his clear willingness to take back the 11:35 slot:

Do you want to go back to 11:35?

If it were offered to me, would I take it? If that’s what they wanted to do, sure. That would be fine if they wanted to.

Would you rather do that than this [the 10 PM show] ?

I don’t know. Would I take it? I guess. But it’s not my decision to make; it’s really not. I don’t know.

Jay Leno has been interviewed more in one week than I will in my entire lifetime. And even I know that the only correct answer to that question was “I’m really just focused on 10 PM.” Was Jay just exhausted, and incredibly careless? Or was he already seeing his abdication of “Tonight” as a problem that he hoped NBC would find a way to solve, as opposed to a regret that he couldn’t do anything about?

I can’t say. But I wonder.

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Which takes us to this week.

NBC announces that “The Jay Leno Show” will move to 11:35, bumping the entire late-night lineup by a half an hour.

Leno hasn’t been silent about the brouhaha, of course. But to both the press and his audiences, his comments have been limited to jokes about his show being cancelled and NBC messing around with him.

Conan has stated that he won’t be a party to “The Tonight Show” being moved from its traditional spot both on the schedule and as the first piece of fresh comedy after the local newscast. He seems to be resigned to the fact that his show will be completely off the air after the Winter Olympics.

It seems fair to conclude that Leno’s perfectly OK with this situation. NBC surely wouldn’t have announced the move unless an agreement for an 11:35 Leno show were already in place.

So you see where I am in my feelings about Jay Leno. There’s a lot of lipstick on his collar and I’m prone to start wondering about protests of innocence.

Through each of these pivotal moments in his career, his public stance has been that he just does his job as best he can; he’s just a leaf being spun by the breeze, without an active hand in his own destiny. The Forrest Gump of Late Night.

I’m willing to give him a mulligan on how Kushnick got him the Tonight Show. I think the situation is analogous to Don Corleone’s wife in “The Godfather.” Jay might not be innocent, but neither is he actively guilty of the things his “spouse” did to put bread on the table.

Okay, but was Jay pushed out of the “Tonight Show” chair in 2004, as he now suggests? Or was he open and amiable to a 2009 retirement and a smooth, clear transition for Conan? Who knows. But it certainly seems as though he had the option of fighting for his job if he really wanted to keep it. He was in a position of supreme negotiating strength: he had a contract through 2009 and an ungodly-consistent record of #1 finishes in his time slot.

If Jay had dug in his heels, Conan (who was being wooed by other networks and whose contract was due to expire shortly) might have walked. Well, that would have been Conan’s choice to make. Leno’s choice was to agree to leave the show at the end of his contract and issue an unequivocal statement of his support and his willful contribution to the move.

After the failure of the 10 PM show, was Jay forced to return to his old time slot? Of course not. According to published reports, Conan has a two-year “Tonight” contract. No, it stands to reason that recently, Leno was sitting in yet another NBC office, taking yet another meeting with executives, faced with yet another free choice to say Yes or No to an offer on the table. He apparently said “Yes, sure; move me to 11:35.”

And yet in his monologues, he paints himself as a victim of NBC. In his 2009 and earlier interviews, he suggests that he felt he really had no choice of remaining as the host of “Tonight.” There’s an interview (which I conveniently can’t locate) in which he likened his 2004 situation with NBC to a girlfriend who starts indicating that maybe she’d like to start seeing someone else. I recall him saying that in a situation like that, you don’t argue; you accept that they’re interested in making a change, and you leave of your own accord. But in this November interview with Broadcasting & Cable, I perceive an attitude of “gosh, if NBC makes me an offer to move to a different time slot, then that’s what I have to do…right?”

Other bits of that same interview offer a simpler answer: that it’s merely in his nature to fight the fight of the underdog whenever he finds one, and not to just walk away.

Which would normally be a laudable sentiment. Let’s not forget that he was the underdog in 1993, when Letterman was roundly and routinely kicking his butt from the Ed Sullivan Theater every night.

But it’s not something to be proud of when the consequences of his Yes are added up. When he was offered his old time slot back, Leno had to have known that only two repercussions were possible, both highly damaging to other parties:

1) Conan would start his show at 12:05. Despite retaining the Tonight Show name, in reality he’d merely be doing “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” a half an hour earlier than he was doing it a year ago. Jimmy Fallon’s show, still trying to find its feet as it is, would likely struggle at 1:05. There’d surely be no room for Carson Daly at 2 AM.

or

2) Conan would (rightly) see NBC’s move as an affront to himself and the work of his staff, and would choose to close his doors. God knows how many of “Late Night”‘s longtime staffers moved their homes and families to California to follow their boss, convinced that Conan would be in business with NBC for two years at the very least, and possibly a decade or three more.

Meanwhile, Leno has famously and frequently stated that he doesn’t even touch his TV money, and lives solely off of his income as a comic. He’s stated that he considers himself a standup first, and a broadcaster second. And according to published reports, he keeps more than 160 standup dates a year.

Does this seem like a man with a commitment to his show? Or is it a man who simply likes to fill his time with a lucrative second sideline to his real job, and who likes to fight for the sake of the fight?

I’m certain that I’ve won desirable jobs at other people’s expense. But I’m not sure that I could justify behavior like Jay’s, if I were in an analogous position and I knew my actions would have analogous repercussions for others.

…And assuming, of course, that my understanding of the situation is correct. I’m not even a bystander in all of this; I’m one of millions of spectators. I could be completely off base. I assume it goes without saying that when you hear me sputter about this situation, you should picture a 375-pound red-faced Barcalounger tick in a Patriots jersey, screaming at the TV that he would have taken the Pats all the way to the Super Bowl if HE had been quarterbacking last Sunday. I bet there are fewer than ten people on the planet who are in any sort of position to speak with any sort of authority about what constitutes “the right thing to do” here.

If I’m not completely off base, however:

Leno should just leave.

He really must just leave.

The first Late Night Wars were so long ago that people forget the bizarre way that Letterman wound up at CBS:

With Leno’s “Tonight Show” taking on water, NBC offered Dave the 11:35 slot, promising not to renew Jay’s contract when it expired in a year and a half. NBC had gone through a huge internal battle over it (well documented by Bill Carter) but ultimately, the network decided that they’d put the wrong guy in Johnny Carson’s chair and chose to fix their mistake.

Letterman supposedly agonized terribly over the decision. A lucrative deal with CBS was on the table. But “Tonight” was his boyhood dream.

We all know what Letterman did. The argument, stressed by his friends, management, and trusted staffers, was that “Tonight” had become damaged goods. He wanted to be Johnny’s successor but Leno’s term meant that this dream could never happen.

Moreover, for the first months of “The Tonight Show With David Letterman,” there’d be a big knife sticking out of the desk, with Dave’s prints on the handle and Jay’s blood dripping from the blade. He’d be the selfish guy who booted out “that nice Jay Leno” from a job that he’d earned through hard work and perseverance, whereas Dave would be perceived as being driven by some smug sense of entitlement. And what would happen to Jay in that circumstance? He’d probably wind up at another network, able to build a new show from scratch without any of the baggage of past political battles.

If Jay takes back the Tonight Show — and does anybody believe that if Conan makes good on his promise, a Jay Leno show airing on NBC from 11:35 to 12:35 would be named anything else? — then the Tonight Show will live on as nothing more than a trademark. It’s damaged goods. The continuity of its comedy legacy will have been broken; it’ll be just another talk show. Its host will be thought of as a clock-puncher instead of an involved, committed innovator, a man who sees the chair not as the seat of a rich tradition, but as just a place where he can rest his feet and relax for an hour every night before his next show at some random casino in Lower Godforsaken, Tennessee or wherever.

And Heaven help him if “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” doesn’t climb back to its 2008 ratings level almost immediately.

Conan will find work for himself and his staff, just as Dave did before him. He’ll create a brand-new property from the sweat of his massive, pasty-white brow (and, of course, the variably-tanned brows of his staff). In the end, he’ll have a success that he can truly call his own. Unlike Forrest Gump, Conan appears to be more than willing to assume full responsibility for his own destiny.

And amidst it all, David Letterman and Craig Ferguson will keep laughing and laughing and laughing. Not at the people involved, but at the overall situation. To CBS, which had absolutely nothing going on from 11:35 to 1:35 before Worldwide Pants joined the company, those two shows are like 15 years’ worth of free money. Now that Dave and Craig are taking the late-night lead away from NBC, I bet CBS is doing a lot of laughing, too.

At this point in the narrative, it should be acknowledged that none of these men will ever be anything less than insanely wealthy for the rest of their lives. They’re grown adults who entered into contracts with big corporations, advised by smart people who made certain they were aware that NBC doesn’t love them. It’s silly to be arguing about this on a day when thousands of people are dead in Haiti. Well, I can speak so freely and penetratingly about the Late Night situation only because it’s so trivial. Even right now, I struggle to complete this paragraph in a manner that can coherently express the sorrow of this disaster. I can only paste in the link of a very highly-recommended relief agency that can put your donations to excellent, immediate, and direct use. And then I sigh once more, and then I move on.

I have friends who are true experts in television. I’ve known and read Aaron Barnhart since he was the talented author of an Internet mailing list about late-night TV; I used to convert his newsletter to ebooks for the Newton Messagepad, if that gives you a hint about how long I’ve known him. For years now, he’s been a nationally-respected television critic for the Kansas City Star. I’ve known Mark Evanier since the days when swapping emails began with the screech of a 2400-baud modem. He’s worked in television for decades. When Leno and Letterman were up-and-coming LA comics, he didn’t just have ringside seats…he sold a joke or two to Jay. And if there’s barely anything about the entertainment biz that he doesn’t know, there’s certainly nothing he can’t write about with masterful elegance.

I can’t claim those kinds of credentials. All I know about Leno, Conan, Dave, and Craig is what I see in their shows and read in the news.

The postscript to Dave’s departure from NBC: he was in such turmoil over the choice between “Tonight” at NBC and starting up a new show at CBS that his friend and consiglieri Peter Lassaly (himself a former “Tonight Show” producer) urged Johnny Carson to lend his advice. He had determined to keep out of it, but agreed to take Dave’s phone call.

Clearly, as bad as the NBC offer was, it was still incredibly difficult for Dave to turn it down. But after a few quiet words of common sense from Johnny, Dave made the only choice he could possibly make.

I’m no Johnny Carson. But as a mere viewer, I’ll go out on a preposterously presumptuous limb.

Jay?

Turning down the Tonight Show is the only choice you can possibly make.