The rise and fall of a late night TV talk show host
January 23, 2010 2:18 AM   Subscribe

The show is loaded with intramural cracks, tedium, desperate looking guests reaching for laughs, mechanical dolls that wave their arms and drop their pants, additional tedium, and the apparent illusion that several million people want to watch 120 minutes of the scriptless life of a semi-educated, egocentric boor. The rise and fall of a late night TV talk show host. posted by twoleftfeet (31 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
man, Comcast really got a great deal here...
posted by delmoi at 2:39 AM on January 23, 2010

Yes, but was it big in France?
posted by minimii at 3:42 AM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Said before, will say again: Larry Sanders
posted by DU at 4:09 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Fascinating article!
Just got home from work at 6am, dead tired, but I had to read the whole thing, and loved it... Jerry Lewis has always seemed like an egomaniac of the highest order, and my wife (who works with disabled children) has always despised Lewis despite his Telethon because of how Lewis panders and talks down to the kids. I dunno, I never much cared for the guy myself, but he's an interesting train wreck to read about, for sure..
posted by newfers at 4:13 AM on January 23, 2010

Great article. But, my retinas need replaced now.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:42 AM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

intramural cracks, tedium, desperate looking guests reaching for laughs, mechanical dolls that wave their arms and drop their pants, additional tedium...

I'm sorry, but this almost perfectly describes "The Tonight Show" with Conan O'Brien. I love Conan passionately and watched "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" at least three nights a week since the day it went on the air. But "The Tonight Show" just wasn't happening, and it didn't appear to this viewer that Conan had any awareness that he was in the midst of a fiasco. What the hell were they doing in that huge sterile studio, with the band seemingly a million miles away in one direction, and Andy a million miles away in the other? It was like doing a show in a CostCo. Conan's comedy died in that space. Not that he was trying anything new. The show was "Late Night" stripped of its intimacy, clubbiness, and loveable underdog status. There were more than a few times watching Conan on the "Tonight Show" that I thought of Jerry Lewis and his desperate schtick. Leno sucked too in his early months on the "Tonight Show", but he and his people realized it, and eventually they threw their whole format, whole set, and whole band overboard, and started out fresh -- and whatever you think of the results, it was a genuinely courageous, adult thing to do under the circumstances. And it was one of the factors that finally earned Leno his success in that slot. Conan is a trillion times hipper and smarter and more decent than Jerry Lewis will ever be, but he seems to share with Lewis the belief that however bad things get, he can always rely on a spectacular display of stage spasticity to pull him and his show through.
posted by Faze at 6:08 AM on January 23, 2010 [12 favorites]

"By 1956 Steve Allen had made The Tonight Show a successful franchise...[a] format that has become the template for all late night talk-shows since"

Surely this is a big part of the problem. The format has not changed in 55 years. Time to move forward perhaps?
posted by jontyjago at 6:17 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

This article is great. I love WFMU so hard.

In a gesture of incredible humility, he had the El Capitan sign removed and gave the theater a brand new moniker: The Jerry Lewis Theater. Lewis biographer Shawn Levy writes, "It had been completely gutted and rebuilt as a state-of-the-art TV studio. The very wiring and plumbing had been replaced. Eight hundred new gold-upholstered seats were installed. There was a new gold curtain on the stage, new plush red carpeting on the aisles, 350 speakers in the auditorium, and a gigantic closed-circuit monitor suspended above the stage so the audience could see the show exactly as it was broadcast. A walnut-paneled control room had been built, complete with a wireless communications link to the stage and a paging system connecting it to all twenty(!!!) dressing rooms. The desk at which Jerry would sit when talking to guests was equipped with a control panel that allowed him to override the director and control shots while the show was in progress; at a cost of thirty thousand dollars, it was designed to be broken down and taken anywhere in the world on location.

Un. Believable.
posted by billysumday at 6:40 AM on January 23, 2010 [6 favorites]

The description of the debacle of the first show reminds me of David Lynch's brilliant but brief television show On the Air.
posted by billysumday at 6:50 AM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Well, with CoCo gone, I guess all we have left is Between Two Ferns.
posted by Mach5 at 7:45 AM on January 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

I go to bed before the talk shows come on, but I tuned in over the past couple of weeks to see what was going on.

One thing that struck me was how male-centric all of these shows are. "Girls" showing up in bikinis, "girls" flirting with the middle-aged male host to promote a new movie, lots of jokes with thinly veiled innuendo with all of the sophistication of a middle school pervert... And then there's Letterman...

Time to move on, perhaps?
posted by KokuRyu at 7:54 AM on January 23, 2010

I guess we can be glad the Jay Leno show wasn't two hours long. I guess.
posted by tommasz at 7:59 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, with CoCo gone, I guess all we have left is Between Two Ferns.

That was awesome
posted by KokuRyu at 8:01 AM on January 23, 2010

My favorite part is the Jack Paar story. Because his comments about yellow journalism are a great example of my theory that there's nothing different about journalism today than historically and that there's no such thing as this golden age of journalistic integrity everyone loves to wax nostalgic about in here.
posted by spicynuts at 9:27 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thorzad: try this bookmarklet.
posted by stratastar at 9:34 AM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

Was Jerry Lewis ever not an enormous asshole?
posted by empath at 9:37 AM on January 23, 2010

If nothing else, this does put a new spin on The Jerry Langford Show.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:38 AM on January 23, 2010

I remember loving Jerry Lewis as a child, but as I got older I came to see him as the jerk he was. I have to wonder how much that had to do with the breakup between him and Dean Martin.

But in recent years his personality seems to have mellowed and improved. His character in The King of Comedy was essentially Jerry Lewis, I wonder if the message eventually trickled through to him.

Some of his assholitude could have been the result of his addiction to painkillers, as well. Opiates have a bad tendency to shut down that part of your brain that evaluates your own behavior, and that's the part that keeps you from being an ass.
posted by Jimmy Havok at 10:13 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Opiates have a bad tendency to shut down that part of your brain that evaluates your own behavior

Jerry Lewis, guilty of showing poor judgment? Perish the thought.
posted by FelliniBlank at 10:37 AM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

One advantage of growing older and enjoying the occasional drink is that I'm usually asleep by the time these shows come on, so I can avoid this whole tempest in a teapot.
posted by jonmc at 11:00 AM on January 23, 2010

That was a great read.

One more derail - the last ten minutes of Conan's show last night were a textbook example of how to end a show. Humble, classy then party.
posted by Joey Michaels at 11:05 AM on January 23, 2010 [3 favorites]

there was some point, I think, where Lewis didn't want to be the prancing doofus any more, and wanted to be more like Deano. And I don't think that feeling ever left him. His movie appearances, as he got older, became less and less about comedy, especially in his later years. He would fall back on the spaz routine, reluctantly I think, when nothing else was working, but I think he wanted to be respected for more than that. I remember seeing him live with my mom once as a little kid (and parents: don't do that. christ all mighty, I was the only person in the audience without dentures.) and he'd almost completely abandoned any original material, relying on jokes you could read in 60 year old joke books and a goofy expression at the punchline. oh, and he'd hit himself in the balls with mic a lot. a lot. he wouldn't just whack himself in the balls, what he'd do is fling the mic outward away from himself a little bit, and let the cord catch so the mic swung back downward at an arc and unerringly catch him right in the junk. then he'd fake a little goofy "oof" face and hunch forward a bit and maybe waddle awkwardly a couple steps in fake pain. I think he did this about 150 times that night, and the old ladies really dug it. I was probably 10 or 11 at the time, and even that young kept thinking to myself "is he just gonna keep doing old jokes and hitting himself in the balls?" the answer was no, he would also sing. and that would be serious. but if he felt people weren't into it, he would inject a little "doy" voice here or there to get a chuckle and then keep singing normally. you know what joke he told that night?

an old man and an old woman are sitting together on the front porch of their nursing home, and the old woman leans into the old man and says "I bet I can guess how old you are." (you know this one.) "first take off your shirt." he does, then she gets him to take off the rest of his clothes, finally his underwear, and with his thing hanging out the old lady says "you're 72 years old." and when the old guy asks how she knew she says "you told me yesterday." doy, ball hit. waddle.

it was one of the least entertaining things I've ever seen. and I think it's cause he was just milking it for money when he could but he didn't want to do it anymore. when I watch those clips of his last show, I see that same guy with that same reluctance to pander, just decades earlier. it's really sad, actually. I think that may be why he played such depressed comedians in his later film roles. I think he had that one down.
posted by shmegegge at 11:16 AM on January 23, 2010 [8 favorites]

Faze, I don't disagree about Conan's issues with the Tonight Show, but Leno got years to get his format right. If Leno wasn't killing the ratings for the affiliates' 11PM local news there would be no need to find another slot for him (to avoid paying his hefty contract) and Conan would have had time to work out his issues with the show.

Conan's ratings are down by about 50% from Jay's last season but the ratings for his lead-in are down a comparable amount. The impetus for this imbroglio is the affiliates losing advertising dollars from late local news cash cow, not Conan's struggles.
posted by theclaw at 12:05 PM on January 23, 2010

"Bill Hicks got what he deserved. I hope his death was painful."

Way to go Internet.
posted by aerotive at 1:31 PM on January 23, 2010

Excellent article. I was a fan of Steve Allen's Tonight show and watched him on Sunday, too, instead of Ed Sullivan. When Jerry Lewis guest-hosted the Tonight show during the long countdown to Carson, he was great! Really. I recall him sitting behind the mike and adlibbing a bit with a pack of cigarettes(!) that still makes me laugh. He messed with the sponsors, too. Once, to demonstrate the value of Scotch tape, he taped his face up into a funny mask. He did this as a demonstration of how commercials could be better. I never really liked Lewis' silly kid character so I was surprised that he was such a good comedian. I looked forward to the two-hour Sunday show. Man, what a bomb! Often (as I recall) Lewis would just stare off into space and say "What do we do now?" There was none of the zip that he had put into the Tonight show. I went back to my first impression of Lewis. That Tonight show stint was the best thing he ever did.
posted by CCBC at 2:30 PM on January 23, 2010

Tip for Mac users who want to spare their retinas: Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+8
posted by coraline at 2:48 PM on January 23, 2010

Jack Paar recounted what spawned his protest in an interview several years later. "In 1959 or '60 a word like 'water closet'... was censored. And, um, I made an issue over it. It was [in] a tacky story I must admit ... and it was told at midnight. Innocent story4. And somebody [at NBC] made the mistake of cutting it. And I objected to it and I said [to NBC] the next night ... all I ask is since you have admitted it was a mistake when you cut it, [the NBC executives] had admitted it was a mistake ... then I will prove it, I will go on the next night and play it. And [the NBC executives] said, 'No, no. If you do that, Jack, it will look like you're running the company and it's a corporate decision.' And I said, 'No, my reputation is more important to me than my career. You say it was not obscene? [You will let me] show it or I will walk off. And they thought I was [bluffing.]"

If only there were more people working in television like that!
posted by JHarris at 7:02 PM on January 23, 2010

Am I the only one in the world who thinks Jerry Lewis was NEVER funny in the least bit, in anyway, shape, form, role or platform he had. Same as Jim Carrey. Don't mean to be snobbish, but I likes my gags to at least make me think a bit while it soaks in and I get.

Simply making stupid faces and gestures just isnt my cup of Darjeeling. Plus everything I ever heard about Lewis was that he was a total egotistical asshole, who used his money/fame/power like a sledgehammer on those around him, all the time thinking he was doing some kind of high art. John Cleese could do more with one look, than Jerry Lewis could do with two hours. Great article, and I would like to put WFMU in my will if I had anything to leave.
posted by timsteil at 7:31 PM on January 23, 2010

Tip for Mac users who want to spare their retinas: Ctrl+Alt+Cmd+8
posted by coraline at 2:48 PM on January 23

Or even better, load up the page, then click on your Readability bookmarklet.
posted by blueberry at 9:10 PM on January 23, 2010

same with Jim Carrey

Maybe on Living Color and Ace Ventura, but he was fantastic in Truman Show, Liar Liar and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
posted by empath at 10:36 PM on January 23, 2010

Jim Carrey was a genius...till he decided that his science had an N=1.
posted by hal_c_on at 10:51 PM on January 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

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