Moving Pictures December 2010

The Tragedy of the Talk Show Host

Miscast in the age of viral humor, the late-night star remains eternally freaky—and oddly reassuring.
Kyle T. Webster

Our galactic overlords, descending at last to take possession of this troubled sphere, will no doubt bring with them some shocking new perspectives. Having done the “oppo,” so to speak—having probed us and scanned us, millennially patient, with their alien tech—they’ll know things that we don’t about life on Earth. They may reveal, for instance, that there are not two sexes but seven or eight, depending on the weather. That the human appendix is for making marmalade. And that large and powerful extraterrestrials have been living among us for decades already, in the form of late-night talk-show hosts.

This last development would surprise no one. Colossal needs, reptilian professionalism, studied informality, flickering eyes—these are the attributes of the host. Suspended for years on end in the medium of live-ish television, wearing makeup in his refrigerated studio, he ages at his own not-quite-earthly rate. A tentacular ecology of writers, producers, executives, tangerine-washers, and cushion-plumpers sustains him. Applause is his oxygen, and a house band attaches to his nervous system. The host is an oddball: a strange bird, a rum trout.

Still, he has his humanity. Tragedy, the small tragedy of talent, attends the host closely. He gets better, but at the same time he gets worse; his delivery becomes more coolly burnished, but his jokes begin to stink the place up. He keeps an eye on the falling ratings (and the ratings do keep falling). One day they’ll take his show away from him. But not yet.

HBO’s The Larry Sanders Show—the 17-disc DVD box set of which has just been released by Shout! Factory—should have finished the host off. A comedy of gaping blackness that ran from 1992 to 1998 (the Seinfeld era), it anatomized his vanities and autopsied his dreams. Garry Shandling played talk-show host/hollow man Larry Sanders, riding the ratings, chasing the hot guests. Rip Torn played Artie, his rasping, ebullient, showbiz armadillo of a producer with the naughty stories about Zsa Zsa Gabor. And celebrities, real-life A-listers, played themselves—twitching and wheedling in the green room before getting sucked into the halogen nullity of Larry’s smile. “On our show tonight,” barks Artie in one episode, “we will have the lovely Daisy Fuentes! And afterwards we’ll meet with Vice President of Entertainment Roger Bingham, along with several of the national affiliate heads, who’ll be stopping by to press the flesh!” (Asks Larry: “Is that drunk guy from Chicago coming?”)

Like Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show was deeply committed to superficiality, honoring the intuition of the ’90s viewer that Western civilization had essentially ended and that society was a husk of manners and absurd ritual. The timing is bumpy, undramatized, full of air pockets: at times the entire show has the feel of a deleted scene. The characters are lustful, venal, awful, miserable: Phil, who writes Larry’s jokes, is pale and tormented-looking, as if his nights are spent kneeling at the last station of insomnia. From the couch comes craterous uncomprehending laughter: this is Hank (played by Jeffrey Tambor), Larry’s sidekick, his comic ground wire. One night Larry is too sick to host the show (bad frozen yogurt), so Hank must do it; bumblingly, engagingly, he pulls it off. The next night, Larry is still out of commission, and Hank steps up again. But now the virus of hostliness is on him: the isolation, the ego. He broods terribly by the stage curtain. “You’ve changed, Hank,” worries his New Age assistant, Darlene. “There’s a darkness around you.”

“Let me tell you something,” says Hank, in Dostoyevskian shadow. “It’s not Larry who is sick. It’s me! It’s me. I am very sick. I am a sicko. I’m so fucking sick. But I’m finally where I belong.”

As for Larry, one episode finds him dating Sharon Stone—having sex with Sharon Stone, in fact. But … is there a problem? There is. An arousal deficit, some cavity of irresolution deep within Larry. He writhes, mutters. Until The Larry SandersShow comes on the bedroom TV—at which point, contemplating his own image as Stone rubs his shoulders, Larry begins to feel his oats at last.

The host not only survived The Larry Sanders Show, he proliferated. In the vexed succession to the throne of Johnny Carson, Garry Shandling was even (briefly) considered a candidate for his own “real” talk show. Currently there are five of them (not counting Carson Daly) on network television: Letterman, Leno, Kimmel, Ferguson, Fallon. Five hosts, five desks, five shows, five nights a week. “The unpurged images of day recede,” writes the poet. “The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed.” But the Emperor’s drunken soldiery are not abed. They are acouch, wagging their remotes at the flatscreen. They want entertainment—but light, seltzerish, digestive. Enter, in a shallow storm of cymbals, the host. He is puckish, he is airy. If he is Craig Ferguson, he stands very close to the camera and swats it from time to time, making free with the viewer’s personal space. Time passes. In the small hours, the wires start to hang out; the laughs get loopier, the production more knowingly half-assed and deconstructed. All part of the format, all part of the show.

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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