Searching For Snippets

Lately I’ve spent a bit of time in front of the computer at home, on the YouTube website.  I’ve been looking for some funny highlights from TV shows that are now decades old.  You might call it searching for snippets.

My initial goal was to find the “Sis Boom Bah” moment from The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.  Featuring the redoubtable Carnak the Magnificent, in what I always thought was one of the best continuing skits on the show, it is arguably one of the funniest single moments on what was a consistently funny show.  (You could argue about other Tonight Show moments, like the Ed Ames tomahawk-throwing incident, but I digress.)  Sure enough, I found the entire Sis Boom Bah Carnak sketch on YouTube, and I’ve put it above in all of its early ’80s, totally un-PC glory at the top of its post.  The Sis Boom Bah moment is still hilarious.

There’s comedy gold to be found just about everywhere on YouTube, but you have to work to find it.  In that sense, it’s a lot more interactive than just watching TV and letting the cathode rays wash over you.   Let’s say that you thought the “Norm!” one-liners from Cheers were consistently funny, as I do, and just wanted to check out a few of them.  A few deft searches, and voila!   One example of what I found, with some of Norm’s choicest rejoinders, is below.  And whether it’s great moments from Seinfeld, or the title introduction to Hogan’s Heroes, or a favorite scene from The Dick Van Dyke Show, you can probably find it on YouTube.


Letterman’s Retirement

David Letterman has announced that he will be retiring next year. He’s been the star of The Late Show With David Letterman for 21 years.

It’s interesting that Letterman’s retirement announcement came shortly after Jay Leno — Letterman’s chief rival for recognition as the successor to Johnny Carson as the King of Late-Night Television — retired. Letterman is another TV icon whose “top ten list” became part of the national zeitgeist. But I long ago stopped watching either Letterman or Leno, and I can’t remember the last time either of them had something significant or novel to say or do about America or the world. For years, they seemed to be living on past glory, attracting the habitual viewers who had watched them for years but not bringing in anyone new. Their shticks got old. People who were comfortable with them stuck around; people who were looking for something different looked elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see whether the late-night talk show format ends up passing into TV history, just as Jay Leno has done and as David Letterman will be doing next year. As I’ve noted before, it’s amazing that talk shows — a format that began at the dawn of TV, more than 60 years ago — are still around. If you’ve seen the commercial where a guy walks out of his kitchen eating a bowl of cereal or ice cream and finds himself on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, you’ve seen that talk shows are to the point of self-parody. Maybe Fallon’s spoofing of himself is supposed to be one of those new, ironic bits of humor that 50-somethings like me don’t get, but I see that commercial as an implicit recognition that late-night talk shows are trite and banal.

I wish David Letterman the best in his retirement, but maybe his decision to hit the road will allow the networks to finally come up with a new approach to late-night programming.

The Twilight Of Talk Shows

Last week Jay Leno stopped hosting The Tonight Show. I was amazed to see that he had been the host of that venerable show for 22 years. That means it’s been 22 years since I last watched The Tonight Show.

I’ve got nothing against Leno, who could capably tell a joke and mug for the camera. He’ll be replaced by the smug Jimmy Fallon, whose claimed talents have always been lost on me, and I won’t watch the show then, either. It’s just that the talk show concept seems so trite and formulaic, it takes a gigantic talent and iconic figure like Johnny Carson to make it watchable. None of the current crop of hosts even comes close — which means the appeal of late-night talk shows is strictly limited to insomniacs.

At the dawn of TV, the staples of programming were westerns, variety shows, news documentaries, and talk shows. The Tonight Show, for example, started in 1954 with Steve Allen as its host. Sixty years later, the westerns and variety shows and documentaries are gone from the airwaves, but the talk shows remain.

In 60 years, the creaky format of talk shows hasn’t changed much, either. We’ve seen Jack Parr, Carson, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin, Dick Cavett, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, and countless others I’ve long since forgotten sitting behind their desks and coffee cups, with some phony backdrop behind them. There’s a monologue, a skit or parody, and some banter with the band leader or sidekick, and then the guests come out — a film star pitching her movie, a new comedian trying to hit the big time, and perhaps a political figure or quirky character who won a yodeling contest or collects rocks that look like U.S. Presidents. A few rote questions, some banal conversation, and its time to move down the couch and bring on the next guest.

Why are talk shows still on their air? Do people find some comfort in the familiar format? Why is a vintage concept that began decades before the internet, CDs, streaming video, and Netflix still around, when everything else about our popular culture has changed so dramatically?

The President On The View

Tomorrow President Obama will be taping an appearance on The View that will be aired ThursdayThe View is an ABC-TV morning show that features a number of women sitting around, talking.  The View is predictably touting the President’s appearance as legitimizing the show; Barbara Walters, one of show’s hosts, says that the President’s appearance means that the show is recognized as “an influential and important source of information and news.”

I recognize that politicians these days will grab just about any opportunity to appear before an audience.  President Obama already has broken new ground in that regard by appearing on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  I’m sure that The View is considered a safe, controlled environment for such an appearance, too.  The President can sit, relax, and drink coffee out of a mug with The View logo on it, chat with the star-struck hosts while getting out all of his talking points, and amiably answer a few softball questions. Maybe his appearance will help his approval ratings among the show’s viewers.

Still, a sitting President appearing on The View seems jarring to me, like a line is being crossed between seriousness and celebrity.  It seems inconsistent with the dignity of the office for the President to show up on daytime TV, chuckling at one of the host’s scripted lines.  I’m left with the same, inescapable thought:  doesn’t the President have other, more important things to do?  If The View is an acceptable forum for a presidential appearance, where is the line now being drawn?

The Risk Of Overexposure

The Risk Of Overexposure (II)

The New TV

How I watch TV – my laptop hooked up to the flatscreen

There’s an article in today’s New York Times about how Conan O’Brien’s millions of young fans never really tuned in to his show. Conan’s ratings among 18-34-year-olds were higher than David Letterman’s, but lower than the Colbert Report’s and, amazingly, Jay Leno’s when he hosted the Tonight Show.

According to the article, young people – especially young men – “don’t watch television regularly”, and when they do watch late night TV they are more likely to watch ESPN, Adult Swim, or Comedy Central. Young men are also more likely to play video games or use DVR recorders, which kept them from watching Conan’s show while it was on.

I have to admit that this article pretty much describes the way I, a 23-year-old male Conan fan, watch TV. The only episode of Conan’s Tonight Show I watched on cable was the finale, and the only reason I watched that was because I happened to be hanging out with friends who wanted to see it right then. Otherwise I would have watched it on hulu like I always do.

If Conan’s finale had been only a few days earlier, in fact, I couldn’t have watched it on cable at all, because we only got cable installed in our apartment about a week ago, after living here for almost six months.

It’s not that I don’t like TV. I’m not one of those guys who brags about not being addicted to the “idiot box.” I like The Office, South Park, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia enough to watch every new episode – online. Every once in a while, I watch The Colbert Report and The Daily Show on hulu. When I visit my parents in the suburbs, I watch whatever new episodes there are of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bored to Death and Hung on HBO on Demand. I own DVDs of Seinfeld and the Simpsons that I watch pretty regularly. I have downloaded many episodes of the Sopranos on Itunes.

After reading that Times article, I realized that the Tonight Show is the only TV show whose airtime I know, and the only reason I know that is because it’s been on at that time for about half a century. I don’t even remember for sure when The Office and South Park air (is it 8 o’clock Thursdays, 9 o’clock Wednesdays?).

What’s the point of watching a show live on cable if you can watch it for free on the internet? When my friends and I were watching the Conan finale, we remarked on how loud and stupid commercials are. It’s almost insulting. We made fun of them for the first few commercial breaks, and then we muted the TV when they came on. When I used to watch Conan on Hulu I only had to watch a few 30- or 60-second ads that seemed much less obnoxious than the ones that were on last Friday.

A possible downside of watching TV shows on the internet is the small size of computer monitors. This hasn’t been a problem for me since I bought a few cords at Best Buy that allow me to connect my computer to our flat screen TV. They cost forty or fifty bucks total, but they’re worth it.

I was going to write that television will go through some big changes soon, but it already has. If Conan had started hosting the Tonight Show in 2004, his young fans would have had to watch his show while it was on cable instead of recording it or watching it online. His ratings wouldn’t have been so low and we wouldn’t all be gossiping about the Leno/Conan feud all the time.

I wonder if the whole concept of a TV show suited to a particular time, like the Tonight Show, is kaput. We’re all busy, and there’s usually something we’d rather be doing than watch what happens to be on cable at the moment. Plus, we hate those stupid commercials.

The Tonight Show, Carson, and Conan

I heartily agree with Richard’s post on CoCo and The Tonight Show.

I think Jay Leno is pretty much unfunny.  He was a lame successor to Johnny Carson, and I think when he took over The Tonight Show he tarnished the brand of that show.  It used to be “must see” TV for anyone staying up after 11:30 on a weeknight.  You would watch Carson’s monologue, see who he had on as guests that night, and probably stay tuned until at least midnight.

Carson was one of the five most classic TV personalities of all time.  Indeed, he was one of the few TV figures of my youth who probably would still be tremendously popular today.  Unlike many of the stars of the early days of television, Carson was not active, but reactive.  He might occasionally get a pie in the face, but for the most part Carson’s humor was laid back and responsive.  The great laughs on The Tonight Show were typically due to Carson’s priceless reactions to a bad monologue joke, to a bird perching on his head and taking a dump, to Ed Ames inadvertently hurling a tomahawk into some outlined figure’s crotch, or to George Gobel unwittingly getting ashes flicked into his drink by a lubed-up Dean Martin.

Leno is different.  He is more like a vaudeville comic who mugs for the camera.  He doesn’t have the sly, sardonic reactions that made Carson so well-suited to the TV medium.  Conan O’Brien, in contrast, does have that quality.  He is comfortable behind the host’s desk, and is willing to let his guest be funny or interesting, without intruding.  Conan is a “cool” figure, is great at reaction, and clearly is more consistently funny than Leno.

I’m not surprised that Leno’s prime time show was a dismal failure, and I think it is criminal that NBC is going to push The Tonight Show back to give Leno some late-night time.  I say:  “I’m with CoCo!  Give him a chance!”

I’m With Coco

Back in college, when someone made a lame joke, my friends and I would say “you should write for Jay Leno.” We always thought of Conan O’Brien as the antithesis of Leno’s cute, unfunny, middle-of-the-road humor.

It’s too bad NBC didn’t give Conan’s new show much of a chance. It usually takes Tonight Show hosts a while to settle in – supposedly it did with Conan when he started in ‘93, as well as with Jay Leno. Sure, Conan’s new show was a bit awkward at times. He and Andy Richter never got comfortable enough in their positions to have the banter they should have had. But the show was still really good, much better than anything Leno ever did. Maybe Conan just doesn’t have Leno’s mass appeal, which might be a good thing.

In the statement he released today, Conan says he will not go along with NBC’s plans to have his Tonight Show start at 12:05 because it would “seriously damage” the “greatest franchise in the history of broadcasting.” That’s another tragic part of NBC’s planned switch. A show that has entertained America and contributed to its culture for 60 years will more or less disappear.

If he is forced out of the show, and it looks like he will be, I hope Conan finds something to do that is worthy of his talent and intelligence.

Some of my favorite moments from Conan O’Brien’s show, off the top of my head:

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog’s visit to the premiere of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Triumph asks a pregnant woman in Star Wars regalia if it’s a girl or a boy. She says it’s a boy. Triumph asks when she’s due. She says in a few months or so. Triumph says, “that will be the last time he sees a woman’s vagina.”

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog chats with the members of Bon Jovi before their concert. He says to Jon Bon Jovi, “I heard you’re playing a vampire in a movie coming out soon.” Jon Bon Jovi confirms this. Triumph says, “finally, a role which requires for you to suck!”

Conan checks out a 19th-century style baseball game reenactment. He ends up wearing an old-style uniform and a handlebar mustache and almost gets into a fight with the “hurler” (a.k.a., pitcher). When a plane flies overhead, he freaks out, yelling “ho, what is that devilry?”

Conan tricks Andy Richter into walking on the set of the Today Show naked. Staged, of course.

Death Of A Sidekick

Ed McMahon in the early days

Ed McMahon in the early days

I was saddened to learn of the death of Ed McMahon. Younger people probably don’t know much about McMahon, but he was one of the most recognizable TV personalities of my childhood and young adulthood. As the announcer for Johnny Carson, McMahon was the consummate sidekick — he laughed at Carson’s jokes, threw some good-natured barbs at Carson’s many vacations and marriages, played straight man for Carnak and other running shticks, and cheerfully endured familiar jibes about his weight and his drinking. His laugh was legendary and the stuff of easy imitation, and his cries of “Yes!” and “Hey-oh!” became part of the TV lexicon. Of course, his most famous trademark line was “Heeere’s Johnny!”

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson in their prime

Ed McMahon and Johnny Carson in their prime

During the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, people watched The Tonight Show because it was funny — Carson himself was a master, he always booked great comedic talent, and he always brought out the best in his guests — but also because it was so easy to watch. Ed McMahon was a big part of that. His familiar jocularity, his grinning presence on the couch, and his willingness to laugh at even the weakest Carson jokes helped to make the show as comfortable as an old shoe. I’m sure Carson appreciated having McMahon at his side, ready to chuckle and help him to salvage a failed comedy routine. It’s not easy being the second fiddle, but McMahon accepted his role with equanimity and made his own significant contribution to one of the most popular, long-running TV shows ever broadcast. Tonight I’ll hoist a beer in tribute.