Back in the golden days of television, the rules of being a talk-show host were simple: You had to be affable, quick-witted and telegenic. You had to care about your guests. And, most essential, you had to care that you were on television -- ready, willing and able to entertain audiences from coast to coast. That meant maintaining a presentable demeanor, staying cool and, for the love of God, acting like you were having a good time, whether you were or not. Show the slightest hint of contempt for the audience or the medium and you were gone.
These are different times, and anyone who says irony is dead hasn't been watching enough television. For some hosts, irony remains the only way to go. They don't want to be on television unless they can ooze with sardonic attitude, as if someone isn't doing them an enormous favor by giving them a show.
They're ungrateful bastards, of course, but that's not the real problem with their shows. The problem is that, today, most TV personalities aren't good broadcasters. They lack the experience and commitment that comes from making the dues-paying trek from small-town station in the Midwest to local show in a major market (New York, Los Angeles) to, finally, the big shot at the networks. These days some wise-ass says something remotely funny on Comedy Central and, boom, he's got a development deal from Disney. As the pimps would say, they're disrespecting the game.
Nowhere is this more true than on late-night television (except, perhaps, on the L.A.-based morning show "Good Day Live," now broadcast in 13 markets around the country, the closest being Washington). Past 11 p.m., apparently, it's too damn late to carry on a vibe of professionalism. To a certain extent this can be laid at the door of Captain Televised Irony himself, David Letterman.
Letterman paid his straight-outta-the-Midwest dues, but he also discovered that you can do an entertaining talk show playing by your own rules. Many mistook the casual sensibility he brought to television for a clever, wink-wink way of presenting yourself on the tube. Now, most late-night gabbers carry on in that self-reflexive tradition, a kind of what-would-Dave-do style of broadcasting. Jon Stewart mock-anchors "The Daily Show" as if he has the Epstein-Barr virus, often relishing in his complete lack of enthusiasm whenever he reads a fake news item or interviews a guest. Conan O'Brien takes delight in notifying the audience he doesn't know what the hell he's doing. And Craig Kilborn uses most of his screen time on "The Late, Late Show" to flirt coyly with whatever young starlet he's interviewing at the moment. (The audience, apparently under the impression that it's watching a taping of "Married ... With Children," hoots and hollers its approval; Kilborn disregards the noisemakers, creating a whole new type of late-night persona, the host-as-negligent-parent.)
Still, these guys are witty and entertaining (except for Kilborn, but his relentless overconfidence and weird sense of humor make him kind of intriguing anyway), and they clearly love being on television, which makes them tolerable. The same can't be said for MTV's Carson Daly in his newly minted persona as host of NBC's "Last Call With Carson Daly."
Only a few months old, "Last Call" has the "Total Request Live" ringleader interviewing a bevy of young, hip actors and musicians on a nightly basis. But the show itself doesn't feel that young and hip; its low-maintenance vibe and lackadaisical direction make it look more like a product of cable access than NBC. I've seen episodes of "Frontline" that crackle with more energy.
Daly and his crew try to make up for the show's near-comatose rhythm by cramming a bunch of things into each half-hour. One recent installment started with Daly introducing a performance by musical guests the Corrs, Celt-pop's answer to Heart. Afterward, he chatted with obscure foreign beauty Sofia Vergara and superstar music producers the Neptunes, then brought back the Corrs for another song. There's so much coming and going per brief show that there's no time for anything really interesting to happen. Daly interviews guests like he's still at that radio gig in L.A. He's always talking about the damn time. (Five minutes, and then we go into your new song, Mr. Seger!) "Last Call" doesn't even feel like it's Daly's show; you get the sense that he's just keeping a seat warm for Bob Costas or Greg Kinnear until one of them (hopefully) comes back.
And that's still more commitment than haggard-looking Zach Galifianakis manages on his VH1 show, "Late World With Zach." Galifianakis, a comic best known for uttering Steven Wright-like one-liners while playing the piano, runs "Late World" as if he's an efficiency expert who reluctantly has to get friendly to keep workplace tensions in check. He's usually armed with a clipboard, reinforcing the appearance that he considers having a TV show a job, not a privilege.
"Late World" at least has some energy, giving often- neglected musicians like Starsailor, Rufus Wainwright, and Res a chance to shine. And it sends Galifianakis out and about, interviewing Ice Cube as he tours South Central, for instance, or asking a bunch of kid actors which movies will win Oscars. Unfortunately, for all his Tom Green-esque mugging, the host seems like he can't even be bothered to pretend to care that he's on TV. Interviewing guests or out on location, he acts like he couldn't give as a rat's ass about any of it. On the show's second episode, he told a guest he was tired as hell, and it shows.
The saddest thing about "Last Call" and "Late World" isn't Daly's or Galifianakis' studied indifference -- it's the way these shows underestimate the audience. They think that if they offer a bunch of cool stuff it'll divert your attention away from the hosts, who look like they would rather be skateboarding.
It's programs like these that make me really miss Tom Snyder. Now there was a classy cat who knew how to make the TV camera his bitch.