Archive for Television
Comedians/actors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara were married for 61 years, but had they not heeded warning signs, the marriage might have ended some 44 years ago.
The comedy team of Stiller & Meara was seemingly cruising along in 1970, having just enjoyed a nice run of 36 appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the 1960s, when both members of the team/marriage sensed that something was amiss.
With an act based largely on their real-life domestic trials and tribulations, Stiller and Meara found that despite their success—or maybe because of it—the line between life at home and life on stage was getting further blurred as the years went on.
“I didn’t know where the act ended and our marriage began,” Meara toldPeople magazine in 1977.
“We were like two guys,” Stiller said in the same article.
With Meara questioning things and Stiller worried that he might lose his wife, the act was disbanded in 1970.
But they never stopped working together for very long at any given time; they just didn’t do so as the stage act Stiller & Meara.
The couple had been teaming up on a web series in recent years before Anne Meara passed away over the weekend. She was 85.
On television, Stiller and Meara were most recently seen sharing some scenes together on “The King of Queens,” with Stiller playing Carrie Heffernan’s widowed father Arthur Spooner and Meara playing the part of Veronica Olchin, the widowed mother of Doug Heffernan’s friend Spence Olchin.
Ironically, that series ended with Stiller and Meara’s characters getting married.
Stiller and Meara’s actor/producer/director son, Ben Stiller, produced the web series for Red Hour Digital, which Ben owns.
Anne Meara met Jerry Stiller in New York after a failed audition in 1953, and the couple was married a year later. But it took much prodding and several years of convincing before Meara agreed to join her husband on stage as a comedy team, whose only rival at the time in the male/female duo category was the team of Elaine May and Mike Nichols, who weren’t married.
Thus, Stiller & Meara would eventually become the entertainment industry’s longest-running, most successful husband and wife comedy duo, surpassing that of George Burns and Gracie Allen.
After the stage “breakup” in 1970, Stiller and Meara hardly disappeared from view or from listeners’ ears.
They did radio ads for Blue Nun wine, and appeared in television commercials together. They also teamed up in 1977-78 for “Take Five with Stiller & Meara,” which was a series consisting of humorous blackouts about everyday life.
Meara was no Gracie Allen, and that’s hardly a knock. Where Allen was George Burns’ ditzy foil, Anne Meara was Jerry Stiller’s equal, and then some—both physically and in terms of material. She was a tall, Irish, Brooklyn redhead whose height caused her to loom large on stage next to her husband, literally and figuratively.
Meara was a four-time Emmy Award nominee and she was nominated for a Tony Award once.
There was so much more to Anne Meara than being Jerry Stiller’s comedy partner—and Ben Stiller’s mother. There was the acting and the writing and the teaching and the trailblazing aspect to her career for other female comics.
Not bad for a woman whose own mother committed suicide when she was 11 years old.
Meara once gave a glimpse into what the secret was to staying married to a co-worker for over six decades, practically unheard of in show business.
“Was it love at first sight? It wasn’t then—but it sure is now.”
As if suicide isn’t rotten enough, it invariably raises more questions than it answers. That’s because suicide often doesn’t answer any questions at all.
Even a note left behind won’t necessarily satisfy all the curiosity. In fact, suicide notes are likely to create more questions than they answer, as well.
A suicide note is like a press conference where a statement is issued and the issuer scrambles away, without taking any queries.
Sawyer Sweeten is dead. Apparently it’s suicide.
Sawyer, on the verge of turning 20, was one-half of the identical twin actors who played Ray and Debra Barone’s twin boys on “Everybody Loves Raymond” (1996-2005). Sawyer played Geoffrey and Sullivan Sweeten played Michael. The twins’ older sister Madylin played older sister Ally on the TV show.
According to reports, Sawyer was visiting family in Texas when he apparently shot himself on the front porch of the house where he was staying.
In the early years of “Raymond,” star Ray Romano would say in the open that the show “is not really about the kids,” and he was right. The Barone children were often not seen at all in episodes. Not making kids foils or smart alecks was one of many ways in which “Raymond” was refreshing.
The Sweeten kids weren’t fed rapid fire one-liners by the writers. Their characters rarely acted out, and only on occasion was a “Raymond” storyline built around the children.
But today, it IS about the kids. One, in particular.
No word yet if Sawyer left a note. Not that it helps if he did.
Throughout entertainment history, the travails of the child actor after he/she is no longer an adolescent have been widely documented. I don’t know if studies have been made, so it’s anyone’s guess as to whether former child stars are, statistically, prone to big people-type problems more than “normal” kids. But certainly their issues are higher in profile.
I would imagine that some of the emotional/psychological problems that child actors face start with a question that we have all asked about said stars, either to ourselves or of others.
“Whatever happened to…?”
That may be the crux of a lot of this stuff.
Whatever happened to the kid actors after they grew up and their shows ended up in syndication?
But maybe the kid actors are asking themselves, “What do I do now, now that the spotlights have been turned off and the acting jobs have dried up?”
The Sweeten kids: Sawyer (left), Madylin and Sullivan
Some of the kid stars turned to drugs. Some turned to alcohol. Some turned to both. Others followed their lives on set with a life of crime, almost immediately.
With or without a suicide note, the questions surrounding Sawyer Sweeten’s apparent suicide will never truly be answered, because the only person who possesses the answers and who can expound is gone.
And it might be that Sawyer’s demise had absolutely nothing to do with his having been a child actor.
Romano, who reminded us back in the day that his show wasn’t about the kids, reversed that course upon learning of Sawyer’s tragic death.
“I’m shocked, and terribly saddened, by the news about Sawyer,” Romano said in a statement.
“(Sawyer) was a wonderful and sweet kid to be around. Just a great energy whenever he was there. My heart breaks for him, his family, and his friends during this very difficult time.”
Big sister Madylin Sweeten told us to do something that shouldn’t take an untimely death to get us to do.
“At this time I would like to encourage everyone to reach out to the ones you love,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Let them have no doubt of what they mean to you.”
They were television advertising icons who resided on the banks of our cultural consciousness.
Mr. Whipple (Charmin bathroom tissue). Madge the manicurist (Palmolive dish detergent). The Maytag Repair Man. Even the Qantas koala bear.
Those were just a few commercial characters who invaded our living rooms in the 1970s and ’80s. Their ads—usually 60 seconds in length or even longer—were rarely the same. The format might have been nearly identical, and of course the tag lines were (“DON’T squeeze the Charmin!”), but each appearance by Mr. Whipple or Madge usually had them interacting with different customers.
The actors behind the characters were often nameless, as it should have been, but I’m sure their paychecks weren’t nameless—or paltry.
The pitchman on TV these days is usually a local litigator or a voice-over hawking prescription meds.
There isn’t really any character that is iconic—no one who, when they appear on the screen, instantly lets us know what product is being advertised.
Except for Flo, the Progressive Insurance Girl.
Played by Stephanie Courtney (we only know that because this is the Internet age), Flo first started appearing on TV in the late-2000s. Her cheery attitude, dark hair, blood red lipstick and ridiculously long eyelashes, all packaged in an all-white uniform, screams insurance at the moment of seeing her.
To Progressive’s credit, the Flo ads are kept fresher than most other TV spots, which can gag you with their repetitiveness and lack of variety (i.e. those same three Liberty Mutual Insurance ads that are rotated).
Progressive has put Flo in all sorts of situations, from riding motorcycles to consoling a man in a locker room to being tied to a stake (in an ad that puts Flo in different eras in world history).
But unlike the advertising characters from days gone by, who were mostly universally liked (or, at the very least, tolerated rather easily), Flo, for whatever reason, is a polarizing sort.
My mother, for example, can’t stand Flo. I, on the other hand, find Flo attractive in an odd way.
Trolling the Internet, this polarization is acute.
There are Flo-hating websites and forums, as well as those that are visited by men who make no bones that they would like to do some things (sexually) to Flo that are unfit to print here. Other comments on Facebook et al have been from females who like Flo just because they think she’s likable.
Courtney, for her part, has never understood the allure of Flo, sexually.
“The GEICO gecko puts out more sexual vibes than Flo does,” Courtney has been quoted as saying.
Regardless of where you stand on the Flo issue, one thing can’t be disputed: She’s a throwback to a time when TV advertising was flush with identifiable characters and mascots. Back when TV hawked more than just insurance, beer, cars and drugs.
Flo’s Facebook page has nearly 5 million likes, though that number has been dipping in recent years from its peak of 5.4 million.
Like them or not, the Flo spots at least are freshened up rather frequently. Her character, these days, is seen less in that all-white, fantasy Progressive Insurance “store” and more in various situations and venues.
And, no doubt, Flo has made Stephanie Courtney’s wallet fatter than it likely would have been had she been forced to stick to more traditional bit parts on TV and in the movies, as she was doing prior to Flo.
You pretty much love Flo or you hate her; it’s hard to be on the fence with her. She’s the Howard Cosell of modern television that way.
The GEICO gecko, by the way, should get props for its popularity and freshness of new spots.
Who would have thought that the world of insurance would take over TV advertising?
In the 1980s, HBO presented a comedy series called “Not Necessarily the News.” In it, pretend anchors used real news clips but altered them for laughs.
Cleverly inserted shots that the HBO show produced, interspersed with the actual clips, would be used for gags.
Of course, the notion of fake news on TV was hardly new at that time. “Saturday Night Live” began the trend in earnest with its signature Weekend Update segment not long after “SNL” debuted in 1975.
While “NNTN” was playful and Weekend Update was very sarcastic, always delivered with a wink and a smirk, there was still further to go in the fake news genre.
Enter Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.”
Where “NNTN” was produced sporadically and Weekend Update was weekly (during the “SNL” season), “The Daily Show” was exactly that—daily.
But that’s hardly where the delineation ended.
“TDS”‘s Jon Stewart was not part of a host rotation, like Weekend Update’s, which helped make stars out of everyone from Bill Murray to Dennis Miller to Seth Myers.
Weekend Update has always been presented in a breezy five minutes or so, while “TDS” has always been 30 minutes in length.
Stewart is one of two hosts that “TDS” has ever known (Craig Kilborn began when the show began in 1996 and Stewart took over by 1999), and he stunned his audience with the announcement this week that this will be the year that he steps down.
Kudos should continue to go to Kilborn, the ESPN grad whose smarmy delivery would forever brand “TDS,” but it was Stewart’s intellectually sharp, biting humor and longevity that cemented “TDS”‘s perpetual place in television comedy history.
“TDS” has been guested by a gaggle of political figures and other celebrities over the years, many of whom have been eager to share the stage with Stewart and engage in the ensuing repartee.
Such was the popularity of Stewart’s show that it spawned spin-offs, like Stephen Colbert’s “The Colbert Report” and “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.”
Stewart never hesitated to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy of politics, social issues and celebrity. He used his host’s chair as a bully pulpit, but it always seemed that those he bullied deserved it. Stewart possessed the incredibly difficult knack of being biting but not mean-spirited. He never tweaked anyone just for cheap laughs.
I believe that the ability to jab someone in a pointed way but sans brutality added to the humor of “TDS.” Stewart was no insult comic—he wasn’t Don Rickles sitting behind a desk.
Stewart was so entrenched as “TDS” host that it was easy to forget that he wasn’t one of the mainstream news anchors, but instead a gifted comedian and an actor/director whose career on the big screen is nothing to sneeze at either.
Comedians will tell you that the beauty of their craft turns up when their material practically writes itself.
Stewart didn’t have to try very hard to pull laughs from the daily headlines; so much of what goes on is good fodder. But that doesn’t minimize his contribution to television comedy.
Jon Stewart’s “TDS” not only poked fun at the news and newsmakers, it illuminated the injustices, ridiculousness and shamelessness bubbling just below the surface of them both.
Stewart pulled no punches, but at least those he tattooed had it coming.
Today’s Miss Americas serve their term and then they’re never heard from again. Or so it seems.
There’s no prerequisite, of course, that the winner of arguably the most famous beauty contest of all time needs to stay in the limelight when she hands the crown over to her successor.
But there was a time when Miss America was often the springboard to bigger and better (or, at least, more profitable) things.
Mary Ann Mobley was one of those Miss Americas who stuck around in our consciousness long after she sashayed down the runway.
She was the first Mississippian to win the legendary contest, and she parlayed that distinction into a pretty decent stage and film career as an actress.
Like so many other women of her era, Mobley was able to star opposite Elvis Presley on screen, and like her brethren, she out-acted him.
Mobley had a smile that went from ear-to-ear and her dark beauty was a stark contrast to the blond, lighter handsomeness of Gary Collins, an actor and game show host (and fellow Mississippian) who she married in 1967.
Mobley captured the Miss America crown in 1959 and six years later she was a winner again—this time with a New Star of the Year Golden Globe.
But despite all her credits on stage and screen (big and small), it was in charitable causes where Mary Ann Mobley was a true Miss America.
She served on several councils and contributed to many charities and her work was exemplified by the naming of a pediatric wing after her, at a hospital in her hometown of Brandon, Mississippi.
Mobley and Collins formed one of television’s most well-known couples, particularly in the 1980s. For many years they were both in our living rooms in some way, shape or fashion, with Mobley doing turns on shows like “Falcon’s Crest” and Collins chatting up folks on talk shows and helping them win money on game shows.
Mobley was the first woman to be inducted into the University of Mississippi Hall of Fame.
But Mobley’s sweet-as-pie good looks and her Mississippian, southern belle demeanor shouldn’t have fooled you, because she was also a very competent filmmaker.
You heard me.
For years, Mobley documented the “young victims of war and starvation in places like Cambodia, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Sudan,” according to a release from Warner Brothers.
That probably doesn’t sound like the Mary Ann Mobley with whom you’re familiar.
The Chairman of Miss America, Sam Haskell, sang Mobley’s praises after word of her death reached him.
“She challenged me, she loved me, and she made me laugh! I shall miss her!”
Mobley once spoke of her ever active life, when she was knee-deep in acting, fundraisers and volunteer work.
“I’m home about two days a month, and on those I have to pack.”
Allen Funt created television’s Candid Camera. But he was not the star.
If Funt were alive today, he would concur.
Funt, who took the idea of a roving microphone capturing unguarded moments from the days of radio and turned it into a TV phenomenon, also never liked the notion that his show made fools out of unsuspecting people.
Funt preferred to think that Candid Camera was more of a series of case studies on human behavior, rather than a gag-filled half-hour.
Regardless, the star wasn’t Funt, though he hosted the in-studio segments and often appeared during the hidden camera “case studies.”
The stars of Candid Camera were always the people—the folks whose behavior was being chronicled in a very unfiltered and unscripted way.
Therefore, the laughs that resulted were always from the audience’s glee at the reactions of the unwitting, caught by Funt’s hidden camera.
But that was then.
TV Land has trotted out a new version of Candid Camera, hosted by Funt’s son, Peter, and actor Mayim Bialik.
As in Allen Funt’s original version, the hosts in the studio don’t matter. Not that the younger Funt and Bialik do a poor job (they don’t), but they aren’t the stars.
The new version, however, falls flat.
It’s not the fault of Funt and Bialik. It’s the fault of the people. And that’s not even fair, really.
The charm of the original Candid Camera was not only watching normal people in abnormal situations, it was in the reveal—that moment when Funt, et al would finally let the unsuspecting in on the joke.
“You’re on Candid Camera!”
But back in the original show’s days, there weren’t cameras all over the place. There weren’t cell phones and tablets and the like, all equipped with cameras that could be whipped out at a moment’s notice, ready to capture just about anything the possessor wished to capture, newsworthy or not.
Today, people aren’t stunned or shocked by the presence of a camera, even if they didn’t know one was trained on them for a case study.
So the reaction to the reveal in the new version is, well, muted.
And a muted reaction isn’t very entertaining to the TV viewers.
Now, that might not be so bad if the situations the people are placed in made up for the less-than-spectacular reveal reactions.
But they don’t.
Candid Camera debuted in 1948 and there have been a few relaunches along the way. So we’re talking 66 years, essentially, of the show’s existence. That’s a long time and it’s hard to come up with fresh new stuff.
Allen Funt, back when this notion still had the power to amaze
But again, the society in which we live makes it awfully difficult for us to be flabbergasted anymore by what we see going on in front of our eyes.
Whether it’s a soap dispenser at a market that doesn’t stop dispensing or a retail outlet that charges a $10 fee to shop in the store as opposed to online (both used in the new version), does anything really surprise us anymore?
The charm of Candid Camera was rooted in two certainties that existed decades ago that simply don’t anymore—a much more impressionable public and a genuine amazement that a hidden camera could be set up. The people were video virgins, so to speak.
Today’s society is far less impressionable and there are cameraseverywhere anymore. In fact, it seems like we are all on camera more than we aren’t, when you add security cameras and the like into the mix.
I think it would be more of a surprise if the revealing person shouted, “You’re NOT on camera now!”
Still, I give TV Land credit for trying to appeal to those of us who remember when an evening with Allen Funt and company was truly a special event. The situations were comical, the reactions were priceless and the reveals were the cherry on top.
However—and it’s not TV Land’s fault—today’s society is just so damned hard to amaze and impress. And we are certainly not aghast at the notion of a camera lens shooting us through a hole in a wall.
The result is that watching the new Candid Camera is like dusting off an old Jack-in-the-Box and failing to be stunned by the clown popping out—while being wistful of the days when it did.
Editor’s note: The following e-mail arrived from none other than Peter Funt himself, who saw this post, on October 1, 2014:
Funny thing about the “original.” There’s no bigger fan of my Dad’s work than me, and I never suggest that my stuff is as good as his was at his prime. However, I find that our memories have a way of distorting and condensing and selecting from the past. I think what you and some other viewers are, in effect, saying is: When I recall the handful of fabulous reveals that Allen got over decades – perhaps seen in highlights or “best of” packages – they’re better than what Peter gets week in and week out. How true!
I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.
James Garner was once asked if he’d ever do a nude scene on camera.
“I don’t do horror movies,” he said.
Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.
“I got into the business to put a roof over my head,” he once said. “I wasn’t looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working.”
And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.
The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV’s Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.
If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.
He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.
Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966′s Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.
But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples’ lips is The Rockford Files, NBC’s series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner’s Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.
Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.
Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.
In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.
Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too—and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956—just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.
Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that “Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you’d be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist.”
And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.
Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.
“I’m a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn’t [or] looks for the easy way out. I don’t think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote.”
Here’s the irony in Garner’s words: he may have been acting and “putting himself aside,” but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.
He could have done much worse. And so could have we.
Before the commercial airwaves on television were taken over by ads for prescription drugs, lawyers and car insurance companies, there was the wild and crazy pitchman.
Every city had them.
The products being pumped were usually electronics, appliances and used cars.
The ads were low on productions costs—usually all we saw was the pitchman screaming into the camera with an occasional glimpse at what he was hawking.
The emphasis was on the supposed insanity of the pitchman, because the deals were so good, you see.
New York had Crazy Eddie, who pitched electronic gizmos while shrieking maniacally at the viewer.
And Detroit had Ollie Fretter.
Fretter, who passed away Sunday at age 91, blanketed the TV and radio ad space with commercials for his appliance store, starting in the 1960s and continuing for about 30 years. He promised five pounds of free coffee if he couldn’t beat your best deal.
The appliance wars in Detroit were hot in the 1970s and ’80s. Fretter went up against Highland Appliance’s creative ads on TV, and Adray Appliance didn’t do as much TV advertising, but Mike Adray was in the game. He sponsored lots of little league baseball and hockey teams to help keep his name on people’s lips.
We fell in love with the items that Fretter and Highland advertised on television. It was a time when microwave ovens, stereos, color TVs and newfangled refrigerators/freezers hit the market with gusto.
At the forefront was Ollie Fretter, who didn’t scream, but who was very prevalent in all his ads, never afraid to look silly and foolish on camera as he shamelessly plugged his metro Detroit locations.
Ollie Fretter, ever shameless
But it was the tag line about the free coffee that became iconic, not unlike Mr. Belvedere’s “We do good work,” which ended all of those home improvement commercials.
Fretter was hardly the only Detroit-area pitchman on TV at the time.
There was Irving Nussbaum for New York Carpet World (“The BETTER carpet people”); the aforementioned Belvedere; Mel Farr “Superstar” (Ford dealership); and a host of other car dealers, like Walt Lazar Chevrolet and Bill Rowan Oldsmobile.
These days, law offices are all over the dial, but of course it would be unseemly if those types got wacky on the air.
There was no shame in screaming about a steal of a deal on appliances and used cars back in Fretter’s day.
In fact, we all waited to see what Ollie’s next spot would bring. Each one seemed to want to outdo the previous in terms of silliness.
Fretter shuttered the last of his stores in the early-1990s. His was one of many dominoes to fall around that time as store after store went out of business, outdone by national, big box retail chains.
I always wondered if Ollie ever gave away any free coffee.
It’s not easy to be a trailblazer when so many of the trails have already been blazed, but David Letterman somehow managed to blaze one anyway.
You may think that late night television was an already-mined resource by the time Letterman, 66, came along in 1982, hosting “Late Night with David Letterman” on NBC.
It’s true that TV at the witching hour was nothing new in 1982, having been first attempted some 30 years prior and being refined for 20 years by Johnny Carson when NBC gave Letterman a late night slot, following Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
But it turned out there was still plenty that Letterman found to do that not even the iconic Carson managed to discover.
Letterman announced today, somewhat shockingly during the taping of “The Late Show with David Letterman,” that 2015 will be the year of his retirement.
“This (retirement) means Paul (bandleader Shaffer) and I can finally get married,” Letterman said to a crowd that seemed to need the laugh to digest the news. But Letterman was serious—about the retirement part.
The longtime late night host said he had a phone conversation with CBS president Les Moonves not long before tonight’s taping and informed Moonves that 2015 would see the end of Letterman’s run on “The Late Show.”
Letterman was a morning loser when NBC gave him a mulligan—a big time mulligan—and put Letterman where his milieu clearly was, in late night.
Letterman’s morning show, which lasted just a few months in 1980, was a critical success of sorts (two Daytime Emmys) but a ratings disaster.
But he was back less than two years later, after midnight.
Where Letterman was able to forage—and where Carson either chose not to go or simply never thought of going—was in the mostly unexplored forest of pulling life’s non-celebrities into the party.
While Carson would occasionally interview folks like an old lady who collected potato chips that looked like people and animals, Johnny’s genius was in his gregarious chats with the famous and in his sketch comedy bits.
Letterman made 15-minute celebrities out of the every man with bits like “Stupid Pet Tricks” and “Stupid Human Tricks.” He also made Larry “Bud” Melman—real name Calvert DeForest, a little-known actor but his day job was working for a pharmaceutical company—famous with Larry Bud’s strangely humorous appearances, which many times made it seem like the joke was on Melman.
While Carson ventured into the crowd for bits like “Stump the Band,” Letterman took it one step further and blended crowd games with cameos from comedic actor Chris Elliott, with hilarious results.
And while Carson had Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsome leading the “Tonight Show” band and functioning as occasional kibitzing partners, Letterman and Shaffer formed almost a tag-team comedy duo, chatting during the first 10 minutes of each show like they hadn’t spoken with each other all day.
It’s no coincidence that pretty much every late night show after Letterman’s employed a band with a leader who tried to be Paul Shaffer Light.
Sid Caesar and company started doing “Man on the Street” bits in the 1950s (something Carson never really did), but Letterman again turned it up a notch, beseeching the regular folks to partake in stunts and pull pranks on other unsuspecting folks—their colleagues, so to speak.
There are many other directions that Letterman took late night comedy and talk, but they are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say that while the genre had been discovered, Letterman took that block of clay and molded it.
“The time has come,” Letterman said today in announcing his retirement a year hence.
He wasn’t emotional, he wasn’t melancholy. He sounded like a man comfortable in his place and with his timing.
It was as if he was saying, “My job here is done.”
Which, it is.