by Joe Shea
November 4, 2010
MOURNING IN AMERICA
BOCA RATON, Fla., Nov. 8, 2010 -- On his official "Team Coco" Web site, the late-night-tv return of Conan O'Brien is summed up with this note:
If you've missed ANY of the awesome CONAN promos that have been on tv.
The problem is that the surefire clue that a "comedian" is either trying too hard to be funny, or not funny at all, is the introduction, "And now let's welcome to the stage a really funny guy."
TBS, which found the need to dilute the energetic also-ran late night efforts of a truly quick, funny, and innovative guy - George Lopez, of course - runs Conan promos that billboard the word: FUNNY!
Let's be brutally honest with ourselves. Some folks will always claim funny is different things to different folks. My dad loved Benny Hill. My wife thought he was your basic crude fart joke guy. I can't remember laughing at anything Jim Carrey or Will Ferrell has done on screen. But I find Adam Sandler, much of Eddie Murphy, the old-time guys like Jonathan Winters and even the late Jim Varney true comedians. These are grades of opinions about folks with comic timing and talent.
I contend that even people who truly like Conan O'Brien do not find him funny. They like him for a variety of reasons that cluster around these areas:
At this point, for the new generation of viewers who don't read a newspaper, never heard of Mort Sahl or sneaked a listen to their uncle's Redd Foxx record albums, I will explain what Late Night comedy once was, and could be.
It was the age after Jack Paar and before Johnny Carson, and Steve Allen a multi-talented writer, composer, actor, and comedian, sent people to sleep with smiles and created outrageous skits with a cast of great regulars. If anything, he was too brilliant for his day, but late-night tv was fun.
Then came Carson and sidekick Ed McMahon and a steady show with some classic gags and adlibs, but things perked up when Johnny took his many long contractual days offs and vacations.
It came when Jerry Lewis was the guest host for Johnny.
First came his classic instruction to future broadcasters, with the "Announcer's Test," which was a combination of a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song and the Christmas classic "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Instead of "a partridge in a pear tree" there were a hen, two ducks, three squawking geese, four limerick oysters"... and on and on. (You can read the shtick here.)
The buzz was starting to hit my schoolfriends. Kids would volunteer to go to bed early, throwing their folks off guard, and sneak down at 11 P.M. to listen behind doors or up the stairs to Jerry Lewis every night.
The killer comedy came when Jerry Lewis and his old crooner straight man Dean Martin apparently bought an interest in a company called Tuck Tape. Jerry was their spokesman and his caricature was on each roll of tape or its dispenser.
Keep in mind that 3M's iconic Scotch Tape probably had 98 per cent of the tape market. They apparently did not like the high visibility of the tiny competitor, but for whatever reason NBC allegedly tried to muzzle Lewis, to cut down his gratuitous plugs every few minutes for Tuck Tape.
The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that Lewis shut up the critics by simply making Tuck Tape a participating sponsor of the Tonight Show with the ability to do the "spots" live. This was a mainstay of old-time live tv when everything from feeding dogs Alpo to cooking on the latest Tappan Gas Range was done live.
There are two types of laughter in the world.
There is the laughter which makes you fall to one knee, causes your eyes to tear and breath to quicken, and ultimately causes snot to run down from your nose into your mouth faster than you can wipe it off.
There is also every other type of lesser laughter.
When Jerry Lewis hit his stride on the Tonight Show, either as guest or fill in host, the laughter was snot inducing.
Again, the buzz around my Brooklyn neighborhood was that they had to get Jerry Lewis off the air. If not, no one in the world would watch Johnny when the guest hosting was over.
Nothing was sacred to Lewis. Pratfalls, faces, taping peoples' ears, ridiculing NBC and its censors. Ironically when the show went to commercial break people did not go to the bathroom or to the kitchen for a snack - afraid that if you missed the first 10 or 20 seconds coming back you might miss something.
Of course, you actually had missed something. You could hear the audience screeching and roaring with laughter - not because the neon applause sign was flashing, but because Lewis kept the comedy going through the commercial breaks.
Long ago, Dick Cavett stopped being known as a comedian or comic or even a humorist. This week CBS Sunday Morning featured him as a talk host or critic or television personality. Dick Cavett was a brilliant comic the way William F. Buckley or Charlie Rose might have a bright moment of wit.
So Team Coco enters the late night comedy world again. It is a world where a rubber stamp and formula guy named Jay Leno has an occasional flash of brilliance - usually in his Jay Walking segment on the street. He long ago became a Las Vegas hack.
It is also a world where the only germ of originality and spontaneity comes from David Letterman and/or his writers. The bits with his staff announcer, Allan Kalter, the Top 10 List, and unexpected new classics such as Letterman's recent interviews with Bruce Willis, Steve Martin and especially Chilean miner Edison Peņa, still keep folks laughing.
Late-late night has Jimmy Fallon, who is talented but miscast as a late night host; Craig Ferguson, who is an acquired taste and "droll" at best; Jimmy Kimmel who re-does all ten zillion Howard Stern radio shows every night, Lopez is OK as the ringmaster of an old Arsenio Hall-style entertainment and variety show, and now, Conan.
We actually wish Conan well only because he was screwed by NBC directly and Leno indirectly. Unless the program has a new production team and new writers however, we can expect an endless series of National Lampoon, Monty Python and Dick Cavett wanna-be routines.