Please Dave, Don't Leave Me Alone with CoCo

If you love television—not TiVO time-shifting or lost weekends of DVD binging—but the more quotidian pleasures of coterminous transmission, then late-night TV has become a final refuge of sorts.  Stewart, Colbert, Letterman, O’Brien and the others present the only remaining opportunities to realize television’s original promise as a technology of divine torpor, a box that allowed you to simply zone out and participate in the illusion of real time and a real audience.  Mad Men, Lost, and other hi-falutin’ TV fare are “great,” I guess, but they all suffer from being a little too canned, exceedingly rare, and rather full of themselves.  In an ideal world, some network suit would realize it is in the medium’s best interest to bring back a few shows with plate-spinners, yodeling champions, and jumping poodles. You might be saying to yourself, isn’t that the very premise of the new Jay Leno Good Time Flashback Hour now on NBC five nights a week?  Yes, to some degree.  But for this to really work, the nets would need to turn those five hours over to someone younger with more talent and vision.  Sarah Silverman…Amy Sedaris… Zach Galifianakis…I can think of a dozen people who might actually do something more useful with five hours of improvised primetime other than force guests to sop up the entire D-block driving around a lame racetrack in a Ford "Green Car" Product Placement Promo.    

For fans of late-night, the schedule is once again in turmoil.  Stewart and Colbert continue to chug along (although The Daily Show is in dire need of some new correspondent blood.  What ever happened to Beth Littleford? Can’t she come back?) The jury still seems to be out on Conan O’Brien’s temporal and coastal shift to The Tonight Show.  I will admit to never being a huge fan of O’Brien.  Great writers, great prepared bits—but O’Brien continues to radiate the anxiety of a small terrier overly eager to please.  Even after almost two decades in this gig, he still steps all over his guest’s lines, over-explains every set-up, and is way too happy to get up from behind the desk for a wholly “spontaneous” mugfest.  Yes, he’s self-deprecating about it, yes he makes jokes about his awkwardness—but it all plays a little too hot for late night.  While that shtick did very well with highly caffeinated and Red-Bullied college kids up at 12:30 in the morning, I’m not sure how it plays with working folk trying to relax at the end of the day.  So far at least, the move to L.A. hasn’t seemed to help either.  For a show to pretend it is unambitious, amateurish, and a bit stupid, it really needs the cover of originating post-post-fringe from New York.  Once you’ve been given the keys to The Tonight Show (at the utterly edgeless Universal Shitty-Walk no less), it becomes very difficult to pretend you are incompetent while also serving as a prime agent for greasing the industry’s hype-machine.

Which brings us to Letterman, whose ratings will no doubt go through the roof this week (poor Conan, no sooner does he get some buzz by cold-cocking himself on stage, Dave ends up in a tawdry blackmail plot). I’ll be up front in my bias here: if Letterman ends up losing his gig because he and “Monty” were consensualizing in his office, or at a cheap motel, or even atop the grave of Ed Sullivan himself—I will be very, very pissed.  Anyone outraged at these exploits as “sexual harassment” really needs to take a couple Xanax or, even better, read Mary Gaitskill’s scathingly perfect short story “Secretary.”    Yes, I understand many subordinates, especially women, can face all manner of implicit and explicit pressures in the workplace to put out or go home—but that really does not seem to be the case here (after all, she got to be on the TV!).  Plus, I’ve never really understood how so many—especially on the progressive wings of the left—will promote all iterations of sexual freedom except when it involves disparities of authority and pay-scale, as if “power”—performed or promised—hasn’t been a major player in human sexuality since Ardipithecus ramidus.  And oddly, many of those outraged at Letterman will still tune in dutifully on Sundays to lust after or envy Don Draper as he spews his seed up and down the corporate ladder of Camelot, so go figure.  

But I digress.  If we lose Letterman, we lose the last remaining program to understand that it’s impossible to do five hours a week in television without embracing the fundamental banality of the medium.  Back in the early ‘80s, Letterman pretty much pioneered the deconstructed talk-show format (“Dave” is such an avuncular fixture now that it is easy to forget that generationally his peer group is Andy Kaufman, Michael O’Donahue, Bill Murray, and the other earliest architects of the smartass self-reflexive stupidity that remains comedy’s coin of the realm even today).  When the show moved to CBS (after NBC gave the Burbank kingdom to the depressingly more accessible Leno), Letterman settled into a less adventurous yet at times more subversive role as the cantankerous east coast curmudgeon—seemingly the lone high-profile celebrity to serve as a refreshing counterweight to Hollywood bullshit.  Cher called him an asshole!  His hosting of the Oscars was the biggest disaster ever, precisely because he wasn’t there to blow smoke up everyone’s ass.  Until their recent rapprochement, even Oprah—the nation’s healer-in-chief—hated his guts.  

True to his midwestern roots, Letterman is generally polite and hospitable.  But there is nothing more entertaining than seeing him go off on someone who truly deserves it.  He exhibits the comfort of a guy with two fingers of Scotch in the belly who remains for the most part loosely hilarious—but is just as happy to let a guest know s/he is full of shit, overhyped, and wasting everyone’s time.  Was there anything more beautiful, more cuttingly elegant, than Letterman expressing his regret to Joaquin Phoenix that Joaquin Phoenix was unable to show up for his own interview?  And I’m sorry, his joke about Sarah Palin’s daughter getting knocked-up during the seventh-inning stretch at a Yankee’s game was flat-out hilarious.  Letterman apologized, but if you watch closely, you’ll see that he still ends many monologues with Palin jokes, followed by the band playing him over to the desk with “Bitch” by the Rolling Stones.  He is an asshole—but in a TV-verse where everyone else endlessly compliments each other about how awesome and talented they are—we desperately need such an asshole. 

I’ve heard some express distaste for Letterman because the show so often runs certain gags into the ground, day-after-day, week-after-week.  But that is precisely what makes bits like “Will It Float?” so brilliant—a goofy schoolyard dare given its own theme song, dressed up with the gratuitous showbiz eye-candy of “Hula girl” and “Saw Girl,” and performed as equal parts bar wager and Mr. Wizard.  It’s a bit that doesn’t need a roundtable of recent Harvard grads in the writers room dueling each other to see who can mine the most obscure Punky Brewster reference, but hinges instead on the pleasures of repetition and, more importantly, Letterman’s ability to vamp amiably through almost anything as a host-comedian rather than a comedian-host.  If you didn’t see his “confession” last Thursday, it is really worth a look if only because it so perfectly showcases his ability to tell an open-ended story.  After revealing he has “had sex with people he works with,” he got a standing ovation from the audience!

As for the rest of them, what’s the point really?  I hear Jimmy Kimmel is still on ABC somewhere (in Chicago, he comes on after Nightline and after an Oprah rerun, so it’s easy to lose track of him).  There’s the loud Scottish guy that comes on after Dave.  I’m not really sure what his shtick is other than standing too close to the camera during the cold open, but it is a significant improvement over Craig Kilborn who managed to create a show solely for Ari Gold before Ari Gold even existed (Kilborn has all but disappeared.  Somehow I imagine him hanging out in whatever remains of the Farmers Market in L.A. insulting tourists for their cargo pants, bad haircuts, and cheap sunglasses).  Then there is Jimmy Fallon taking up the Letterman/O’Brien franchise at NBC.  Fallon actually looks to have learned a few lessons from Letterman, the show using a set of revolving Beat the Clock premises to facilitate banal audience interactivity.  But Fallon is no Letterman, at least not yet. And his producers need to electroshock him out of saying that everything, absolutely everything on the show is going to be “really cool” and “so cool” and “so awesome” and “so fun” and so on.  Plus, this week the show is having a “Yacht Rock” night, and as Yacht Rock was hugely cutting-edge FIVE YEARS AGO, this does not bode well for Late Night staying in the vanguard of the comic zeitgeist.   

Finally, those up really late might occasionally stumble upon Carson Daly.  Formerly a sentient body capable of legible announcements on MTV, Daly was inexplicably set up with his own training-wheels talk-show at 1:30am EST on NBC (just what sexual secrets does Daly know about?).  As NBC is by all accounts bankrupt, it is a mystery as to why they continue to finance this utterly unnecessary show, the appendix on the colon of network fringe.   Of late, however, the show has improved somewhat.  Whereas it used to be the place where C-listers who couldn’t get a booking during the previous two hours went to push their latest cable-network projects, Last Call has now been reformatted as a dark companion piece to HBO’s Entourage.  Each episode now features Daly showing up at some L.A. landmark or hotspot, utterly alone and looking forlornly mellow, setting up concert remotes of various bands gigging on the Strip or in Silverlake.  The show aspires to trade in the same lifestyle fantasies of being young and fame-attached in Hollywood that are so central to Entourage.  But seeing Daly sitting in a vintage Cadillac outside of Mel’s Diner with no audience, no sidekick, and no discernible purpose—occasionally interviewing pierced-and-dyed popsters half his age who play as bored and detached—it is a bit like Turtle getting his own show but alienating all of his friends in the process.  

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