The Tragedy of the Talk Show Host

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

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.

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.”