Monday, November 08, 2010

Borrowers of the night

After a week when sanity lost and the San Francisco Giants won, I look forward to the debut of Conan O'Brien's show on TBS in a few hours. I actually enjoyed the promos during the baseball playoffs, especially the Cool Hand Luke parody, and the blimp was a nicely excessive touch. I hope the shows are equally inspired. Late night TV is not so much a Vast Wasteland as a Superfund site. It's not a good time to be a registered insomniac.

The Big Four on the traditional networks are, to put it kindly, inadequate. They all follow the formula created by Jack Paar: opening monologue with topical "jokes," backchat with bandleader, scripted attempts at comedy, interview with one or two celebrities who have a movie or a CD to flog, and -- the one variant -- a usually lousy musical act. Letterman is so bored you can actually see his eyes glaze over as he announces the Top Ten. Leno is still going out in the street ("Jay Walking," get it?) to find several Angelenos to mock because they can't name the Canadian prime minister; risky stuff. Every time I turn Fallon on he's got audience members on stage doing stupid things, so I turn it off. (I don't bother with Kimmel because he doesn't bother with me, or anyone else over thirty.)

By far the most depressing experience -- and really, who needs to be more depressed in the middle of the night? -- is The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. I keep watching in hope of learning why Nancy Franklin in The New Yorker called him "brilliant." She may have been referring to his memoir, An American On Purpose, and I concur. It's the work of an engaging, intriguing mind in a body which has had some extraordinary experiences with alcohol and drugs. Almost none of this makes it onto the air.

Watching Ferguson for a week is like being the Bill Murray character in Groundhog Day -- the same six jokes, the same tired innuendo, prop comedy, weak impersonations, stock phrases and antediluvian Bill Clinton jokes every night. Is it "brilliant" to do a tedious show in order to make fun of tedious shows? Is this what they mean by "post-modern"? Who cares? It's painful because Ferguson can do so much more, and occasionally does. The seven or eight minutes he allotted to Cornel West last Friday outclassed the rest of the week. He's a superior interviewer when a guest engages him. Instead of positioning himself to replace Letterman one day, he has a chance to become Charlie Rose without the vanity. He did a wonderful show with Stephen Fry without a studio audience, and he won a Peabody Award for interviewing Desmond Tutu. He needs to do more of both.

Studio audiences are the bane of all these shows. There must be a PET scanner in the lobby which identifies potential audience members who have higher brain function, so they can be weeded out. The lucky ones who are seated scream and bellow for every weak-ass gag the host utters and greet every guest like a returning hostage. At least Ferguson acknowledges that a "warm-up comedian" (which must be the TV equivalent of the guy who sweeps up elephant shit in the circus) has brought them to this lunatic pitch. The others just bask. Some of Johnny Carson's funniest moments occurred when a joke fell flat, nobody laughed, and he had to work his way out of the silence. Every time Letterman says "Oh Paul," his audience soil the seats.

When Craig Ferguson's father died, he presented a memorial show that honored him and delved into the nature of grief, and ended with Scottish music. It was unexpected, moving, and completely his own, an event that lifted TV above itself for an hour. Not every show can or should be like that, but they don't have to paint-by-numbers. I hope Ferguson, who claims CBS is barely aware of him anyway, will unplug the robot, give the puppets to a preschool, take it as read that America is aware of his prodigious junk, stop making fun of gays and old people, and re-invent late-night television. It needs re-inventing. And if I see that goddam pantomime horse again, I swear I'm selling the TV.

Conan review on, oh, Thursday. I'll give him a few days to get into it.



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