Friday, December 02, 2005

Dave & Oprah Report Card

Seems like Dave's done with two of three segments with Oprah. I'm watching an ad for Lunesta right now, the hot new sleep aid. It's making bed sound pretty attractive, but must blog. I'm ill.

Now that I've returned to Cable Land, one of my new channels is Trio, and one night last week it was showing replays of Letterman's shows from around 1984 -- some of the very first episodes that ever aired. When I told my friend Nick, the next day, he asked, "You mean back when he was funny?" And of course, that sentiment is a common one, and not just about Letterman -- the conventional wisdom is that all shows get worse over time. How many people do you know who would argue that Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons are currently hitting their creative peak?

I wouldn't either, but I do think part of that critical tendency, in some cases, stems from solipsism. The most fervent fans of a project tend to get on board early, and later feel the need to define their own changing in relation to the show -- "If I liked the show then, and I've grown in my tastes since, then it must not be good anymore. (But of course, I have to defend its long-lost quality to preserve the integrity of my prior self and avoid some Back to the Future voodoo where I start disappearing from old photographs.)"

I'm not saying this is always the case. There are years when Saturday Night Live is just unwatchable, but I've always argued that its glory days are overrated. I sometimes stumble across a "classic" episode, with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and the rest of the gang, and they're often unfunny in ways very similar to how the show is currently unfunny. Likewise, those early Letterman shows -- and granted, I'm talking the very, very early ones, before he hit his stride -- were a bit awkward and sophomoric, and not sophomoric in the purposeful way that made the show great once Chris Elliott started eating dog food on camera.

Where am I going with all this? Nowhere in particular, just to say that I think it's difficult to disregard your own history with a show (or a band, or a writer) and fairly judge its past and present. I think Letterman peaked in the late '80s and early '90s, when he was increasingly polished but still young(-ish) and rascally. But what he still has going for him that SNL, The Simpsons, and others don't is that he's the engine driving the show, and his personality -- or stage persona, anyway -- has remained the core of the watching experience for two decades. Part of the way I love Letterman is the way you might love an old favorite uncle. Sure, he might get a bit too tipsy at Thanksgiving and tell the same stories over and over again, but he's a comfortable presence, the majority of his habits are charming, and he'd impress someone meeting him for the first time -- something that you, for better and worse, can never do again.

Back to tonight, though. There's obviously nothing fascinating about Letterman interviewing Oprah, but they do emanate some serious combined star power. As pop culture gets more and more disposable, there's something satisfying about watching two people who have each been at it for 20 years.

Mostly, though, the interview is entertaining because it matches perhaps the world's most inveterate optimist, Oprah, with the self-loathing and cynicism of Letterman. Oprah keeps earnestly (and convincingly, to her credit) saying things like "Education is freedom," and imploring people to do what they can to help sick children in Africa, and Letterman less convincingly nods his head in agreement. It's a classic case of the irresistible force (Oprah's spirit) against the immovable object (Letterman's frown).

He's uncharacteristically obsequious ("Thank you for being so nice to me," Oprah says at one point, with genuine astonishment), but that can't obscure what I think is his triumph here -- he's spent more than a decade manufacturing a feud with Oprah that doesn't exist, and now he gets to reap the benefits of their "reconciliation." That's the late-phase Letterman's genius -- he can show much more respect to celebrities than he used to without nearly approaching the smarminess of Leno, because he's established his personality so well that the audience lets him play both sides of the con. He gives us the sense that he's both a multimillionaire powerhouse and one of us, and whether it's an illusion or not, it's no mean trick.



Blogger Dezmond said...

I guess I fall in the category of feeling that Letterman's best days are behind him as well. He jumped the shark when he switched networks and time slots. Part of the change (and this is inevitable) was that he got complacent and bored with his new fat contract. Anyway, I missed the Letterman/Oprah (and you put that well) "reconciliation" from their manufactured spat.

I do agree with you on Leno, though. He is worse than annoying, worse than smarmy...he is nothing. As interesting or challenging as the couch that his guests sit on, Leno offers nothing at all.

We have had these discussions many times before, but Carson is still King of the Night. I'm talking about Carson Daley, of course. But Johnny Carson was great too. Seriously, Johnny stayed great for so long. He got in a groove too, but you want to talk about a comforting presence night after night, decade after decade, it was Johnny. It was a different time in TV, though. Cable was born and in its infancy through Carson's latter years, so through most of his reign, you had three or four channels to choose from. But the dude was genuinely funny for a long, long time, and one of the great masters at rolling with a situation, wherever it took him. Hell, he practically invented the now standard late night trick of turning a bombed joke into gold with a mere look. I've always been a Carson fan, but when he died I went out and bought that 4 disc "Best of Carson" set. While many of the clips are definitely dated (as well as the humour), through all the changing styles this guy had wit and class that was steadfast for 4 decades. He pulled the difficult trick of appealing to the masses AND throwing in some comments and jabs for the more sophisticated viewers...without alienating either one. He made every guest feel very welcome, yet could subtly (word?) create comedy at their expense (but not nearly as brazenly and in your face as Letterman was in the early days). He also invented mixing the guest roster up, hot celebs AND interesting common folk.

I have two favorite Carson moments: one is where he had a little monkey as a "guest", and was holding it and talking to it. He made some joke, and as if on cue, the monkey made a face like it was a bad joke. Lesser hosts would not have even noticed. But Carson bursts into such genuine laughter, you can't help but laugh with him. And he could not stop laughing. The more he laughs, the more the audience goes with him. He found such humor in a glance from a monkey...and made the entire audience find it hilarious also. The other moment was when he had this old lady who collected potato chips through the years that seemed to be in the shape of people or things. She brought her collection to show. She pulls out a chip that she says is in the shape of Jesus, and hands it to Carson. She glances away, and unbeknownst to her, Johnny had a stash of potato chips under his desk. When she glances away he takes one of his own chips and eats it. She hears the crunch and gives a genuinely horrified look at Johnny, for she fears that he just ate her Jesus chip.

Anyway, Johnny will always be the greatest.

10:32 AM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

An interesting book to read on this topic is (I hope I remember the title correctly, I read it years ago) "Late Shift". It is about the behind the scenes and not so behind the scenes war between Leno and Letterman to take Carson's place.

10:50 AM  

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