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Mourning the death of late night talk shows

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 4/11/2015 Bill Lucey

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It didn't seem that long ago that I used to look forward to tuning into late night talks shows, even when the grand master of the late night circuit, Johnny Carson, retired and gracefully rode off into the sunset, never to be heard from again.

David Letterman, Johnny Carson's protégé, for many years held my interest-starting with his elevator races, stupid pet tricks, Top 10 list and taking his cameras into the streets of New York when you'd never know who he would find.

One time, I recall, his roving cameras caught a middle-aged woman looking disheveled and completely lost in the hustle, bustle and mayhem of Manhattan. It turned out (if memory serves); the woman was in the Big Apple for a funeral.

Dave being Dave, then invited the woman into the studio, invited her to sit down and proceeded to interview her as if she was a booked guest.

His sidekick Paul Shaffer, even improvised and made up a snappy little ditty which he sang in dedication to this woman. And to cap it off, Dave then booked her into one of the finest hotels in Manhattan at his personal expense.

In what might have been one of the most painful traveling experiences of this woman's life-in a blink of an eye-turned into a day she'll never forget when she became the center of attention in front of a nationwide television audience.

It was a memorable television moment, to be sure.

But as much as I enjoyed Letterman, especially at NBC before his jump to the Ed Sullivan Theater at CBS, it didn't really dawn on me until many years later-that I was witnessing the end of the talk shows, real talk shows that are now just a relic from a bygone era.

With all due respect to Letterman, Jay Leno, and Arsenio Hall and now the new breed of hosts: Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers and now Stephen Colbert-all these hosts were and are superb comedians-but are sorely lacking in interviewing skills.

Whether you liked Johnny Carson or not (and he had his share of critics) one thing you have to give the Silver Fox was his dazzling ability to bring out the very best in whoever he was interviewing; whether it was Don Rickles, the talking parakeet who never uttered a word, or the reserved, dull as a door knob pediatrician, who just came out with a new uneventful book.

Today, guests on the late night circuit are mere props for a host to bundle into a quick laugh with little or no substance being discussed.

These so called interviews come off more as SNL skits rather than an engaging interview.

Gone too are the days when stars would pop in on the Tonight Show just to spend time with Johnny with nothing in particular to promote. The only time you'll see the likes of George Clooney or Johnny Depp on the talk shows today is if they have a movie about to be released (usually at the insistence of their production companies) staying barely enough for a sip of coffee.

When it came to substantive interviews, no one was better than Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett. Back then, guests actually stayed for the entire show instead of running off after 10 minutes.

When I was a youngster, I remember coming home from school and watching Merv with a whole raft of guests all lined up sitting in their white chairs laughing, arguing, and baring their soul on any number of hot button issues of the day. Many of the most heated and entertaining discussions centered on Watergate, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the Vietnam War. It was a free for all-but it was engaging dialogue and top notch entertainment.

And unlike HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher, these heated exchanges on Merv and Dick Cavett weren't premeditated and shamelessly manufactured; they were spontaneous, seat of the pants exchanges, much like this classic Gore Vidal Norman Mailer rumble on the Dick Cavett Show.

In stark contrast to Merv and Dick Cavett, Carson had an entirely different formula that worked well for him. After his opening monologue, he rarely talked about the burning political and social issues of the day. It was all about entertainment-so that people could forget about the weighty domestic and international turmoil blazing around them.

With the late night talks shows today-a viewer is regularly subjected to guests promoting a political and social agenda with shows littered with presidential candidates and guests like Bill O'Reilly, Rachael Maddow, the First Lady Michelle Obama, etc., promoting their own agendas.

It seems like the freshly unwrapped Late Show with Stephen Colbert, in particular, is just an extension of the 24/7 news cycle where politicians and politics are the central focus of his show.

And they call this entertainment?

When I asked Henry Bushkin (aka ``Bombastic Bushkin''), Johnny Carson's former lawyer and author of The New York Times bestselling book ``Johnny Carson'' about the comparison of talk shows in Carson era with the new generation, he emailed me back to say, ``Johnny's success and brilliance was based on impeccable timing with subtle moves and facial expressions that captivated the audience and the public. The new generation has less time to seize the audience or the moment. Johnny would let someone like Rodney Dangerfield go on for 6-7 minutes because of the nonstop laughter. Those sorts of moments don't exist today. Sort of sad in a way.''

If you want to find any substantive interview with a celebrity these days, you're better off just youtubing Howard Stern to see what showstopper has popped in, like his insightful interview with Martin Short who talked to Howard about dating Gilda Radner when he was in his 20's and then losing his wife, Nancy Dolman, to cancer. . Or even the Charlie Rose's excellent interviews with newsmakers, such as when Dustin Hoffman revealed that he begged to be fired from Barry Levinson's motion picture ``Rain Man'' because he just couldn't find the voice he was so desperately seeking for the character of the autistic savant, Raymond Babbitt .

Sometimes you even have to wonder if the so-called laughter on these talk shows is orchestrated from some stage director.

I remember a few years ago listening to Regis Philbin on a documentary and he said, ``if you listen to the late night talk shows-the audience isn't laughing anymore-they're screaming. ''

I never thought about it before, so I paid close attention the next time. Lo and behold Regis was right-the audience is screaming which is now masking as laughter.

Sadly, the curtain has come crashing down for my days of watching late night talk shows.

So I'll pass the baton to a younger generation who apparently find value in mindless chatter from their favorite celebs, or seeing these shows provide a shameless self promoting forum for politicians (who happen to be running for office) and need a bump in public opinion polls. I pass the baton, most of all, to the much-coveted 18-to-49 demographic content with the collapse of engaging dialogue in exchange for ham-fisted comedy skits.

It was a great run!

Bill Lucey
November 4, 2015

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