Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Talk Show: The Ultimate Prize

It was 1997 and I was enjoying a new game show called Win Ben Stein’s Money. It was fun to try to answer the questions and add to my vast storehouse of useless information, of course, but more and more I found myself tuning in to watch Stein’s co-host on the show. He was a bit chubby, poorly dressed and had a quick, smart-ass wit that made the show a lot of fun. His name, of course, was Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel remained on Money for three years, but eventually left to co-produce and co-host the hilariously creative The Man Show. I still remember thinking that it was much too soon for Kimmel to leave this show when he did just that, in 2003. The show was at its creative peak and had a lot of mileage left. Kimmel left because the Holy Grail of television had been laid down before him: he was offered his own talk show.

Short of a break-out movie career, the ultimate achievement for successful television funnymen (and funnywomen) seems to be sitting behind the desk of their very own talk show. Over and over we seem to lose uniquely entertaining programs, and their stars, to the apparently irresistible lure of the talk show. You would think the formula would have worn out by now, with the host feigning fascination with a seemingly endless parade of celebrities pretending they are not there to hawk their latest movie, book or TV show. It has been, after all, fifty-three years since Carson began his celebrated late-night reign.

But no, it seems that few can resist that seat behind the desk. We lost The Man Show because of it.  Some might recall that before she had her talk show, Chelsea Handler hosted a sketch comedy show on the E! network called The Chelsea Handler Show. It was funny, daring and something fresh. Ah, but it didn’t fit the formula. It lasted two years, after which Handler began to host Chelsea Lately, which was, and let’s say it together, a talk show.

And that brings us to my main point, the most crushing blow of all. I still remember that he was a little shaky during the first weeks of his new fake news show. He stumbled over lines and at times I felt just a bit embarrassed for him. Back then it would have been nearly impossible to imagine that Stephen Colbert would host his Colbert Report for the next decade, amassing a catalogue of 1,447 shows. Television is much like any art form. There is some real crap at the bottom, a huge mass of mediocrity in the middle and a slim layer of brilliance floating on top. For ten seasons The Colbert Report, without a doubt, was nothing short of brilliant.

And then he was tapped to replace the retiring David Letterman. Yes, Colbert was leaving the Report to do…a talk show. I suppose it’s really not a mystery why he, or any performer, would make this choice. Apparently a late-night talk show, especially on one of the major networks, is a huge step up the showbiz ladder, and I assume it is, as such, accompanied by the appropriate rewards, monetary and otherwise.

There might be sharper minds and quicker wits on television than Stephen Colbert, but none come to mind. And no doubt he will find even greater late-night success when he begins his new gig. The price he’ll have to pay, however, is the softening up of that razor sharpness. He’ll have to appeal to a wider audience and therefore use broader humor. He’ll probably even have to, dare I say it, “dumb it down” for his new audience. He’ll have to play it safe. Oh, he’ll be fun to watch, no doubt. And it will be easier, too, for us viewers. You know, without all that thinking to get in the way of the laughs.


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