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.

The hosts are all obsessed with one another; they are all obsessed with Oprah. They draw from the same pool of guests, promote the same movies/shows/albums, make the same jokes about Amy Winehouse. But they are not interchangeable. On CBS, David Letterman curates his museum of ennui; Ferguson, who comes after him, flings himself at the furniture of hosthood (monologues by hand puppet, a robot skeleton for a sidekick) without quite breaking it. On NBC, Jay Leno spits gags, repeating the punch line two or three times, and goes blank when his guests are talking; and after him, as the unpurged images of Jay recede, comes skittish, eager-to-please Jimmy Fallon. Over on ABC, meanwhile, is Jimmy Kimmel—sloping, sedentary-looking, with glittering half-closed eyes.

A hostly moment: Letterman interviewing Tom Cruise in August 2004. Having introduced, abruptly, the topic of mountain climbing, Letterman proceeds to pin down his guest with strange and penetrating banality, like a hairdresser crossed with a logician. “You yourself actually go out and climb mountains? … How often do you go and where do you go? … And what is your fascination with that activity? … Do you go with a large group? … Have you ever had a close call? … Is it the kind of thing where you take more than one day to get to the summit? Do you camp along the way?” By now Cruise is twitching, flashing his grin, beginning to sense perhaps that he has entered a chilly zone of experiment: Letterman’s meta-realm. The audience too is reacting, tittering—such a weird interrogation! The host looks up innocently. “Is it me?” he asks. “Is something wrong?” Then he continues: “Have you ever been woozy at altitude?” Within minutes, Cruise is screeching with desperate hilarity, teeth bared, a wreck, and Letterman is sitting back—replete, as if he has swallowed Cruise’s self-possession. Mission accomplished.

The host has never been able to relax. That’s one of the reasons he became a host. But now he really can’t relax. We, his audience, are changing. We have atomized, split into micro-viewerships; we’re all over the place. One man (this man, actually) watches nothing but TheKing of Queens reruns and the Fox Soccer Channel; the next man downloads Errol Morris movies on his iPhone. Time was, the host could get up on his hind legs and tell a joke and people would know what the hell he was talking about. Consensus comedy: ho-ho-hos, big fat normative chuckles. Now we have viral humor—scabrous, fragmentary, gone in a flash. A man in Greece falls off his donkey and the Internet shivers with mirth. Catchphrases are born and then die immediately, like mayflies. Who can keep up with it? Gamely the host persists; he presses on with his monologue, with his jokes about Lady Gaga and Sarah Palin, groping for the boundaries of mass taste.

We share his confusion, of course, which is why there are 25 hours of late-night talk a week on network television. On his set, in his suit, surrounded by the props of his trade, the host remains a figure of reassurance. These are the limits, he says, and these are the gags. Now and again a famous transgressor will appear on his show, a news-making loony, a Crispin Glover or a Joaquin Phoenix or a Harmony Korine. Or somebody will say the longed-for wrong thing—as when President Obama made his Special Olympics crack on Leno’s Tonight Show—and the host will find himself briefly on the front page. He’s still the magus of the mainstream, what’s left of it. He’s still our daddy. Conan O’Brien, divorcing NBC earlier this year and saying goodbye on The Tonight Show, was careful to make the kids feel okay about it: “I’ve worked with NBC for over 20 years,” he said, face withered with anguish beneath the electric cedilla of his quiff. “Yes, we have our differences right now. Yes, we’re going our separate ways. But this company has been my home for most of my adult life. I’m enormously proud of the work we’ve done.”

A host is a host is a host, nonetheless: a phylum unto himself, the least regular of guys. His sidekick, that Jungian figure, anchors him to the Earth. In an episode of The Larry Sanders Show titled “My Name Is Asher Kingsley,” Hank dramatically reconnects with his Jewish roots; dazed, remade, he seeks to share the gifts of his faith. “What religion is Larry?” he inquires of Artie the producer. Artie looks at him. “Larry’s a talk-show host.”

Presented by

James Parker is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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