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Shales on TV Live: LenoBrien affair

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Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Tuesday, May 4, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Tuesday, May 4, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

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Today: IN THIS CORNER, CONAN O'BRIEN and IN THAT CORNER, JAY LENO ... Jay bombed at the black-tie dinner on Saturday night and Conan seemed strangely muted or maybe mutated on "60 Minutes" Sunday. Where does this leave us? HOT and HUMID.

Tom Shales on TV: The LenoBrien Affair

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Hello and welcome to Technical Difficulties -- which are made possible by AOL, by Comcast ("down" for 10 hours yesterday - internet, TV, phone -- not far from its home base of Philadelphia) and Facebook, a big mess. Onward with what looks like a BRUTAL day of Kick the Critic.....

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Rockville, Md.: I thought for sure you would be more critical of Steve Kroft's sad excuse for a "60 Minutes" interview. You really let the crown jewel of news magazines off the hook for a piece that was obviously not fit for air.

It was clear that the rumors about Conan's departure contract are true, and he is unable to truly say anything negative about NBC executives or Jay Leno. Couldn't "60 Minutes" have done just a little digging to find out why Conan was so neutral? Also, Kroft's questions, while pressing at times, were about as difficult and probing as a Larry King interview. He never asked about the hypocritical nature of Conan not wanting to shift times for Leno, but not have a problem asking Lopez to switch times for him.

Overall, I thought the Conan interview was a jab by the news magazine to get ratings, which they weren't able to garner because they couldn't actually advertise the interview until Saturday. As a TV critic, I'm just shocked that you let this kind of fluff to tantalize you to write a column that has been written hundreds of times over 5 months ago. How sad!

Tom Shales: Dear Rockville -- ouch, you make some very good if very painful points. I think "60 Minutes" or any TV "magazine" or any TV News show for that matter gets wide wide berth (and I know 'bout wide berths, if not about berthin -- oh never mind) just for being first with something. So since 60 Minutes was first with Conan - which was a job for bookers, not journalists really - then they didn't feel they had to work very hard. And you should remember, 60 Minutes proudly never likes to research ANYTHING that would require them to consult the work of other journalists, especially the print kind. I think you are 75 per cent right here and I feel bad about it -- but it seemed prudent at this juncture to take note of the Conan-Jay saga thus far, and some people probably liked it (I'm not one of them, to be blunt)......

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Late Night: G'day. NBC is pretty much stuck with Leno regardless of how he does -- they've got no one else they could logically give the Tonight Show to now that they've chased off Letterman and now O'Brian. Can't imagine they find a game-show host like Carson and give him the time to grow into icon status, can you?

Tom Shales: Frankly - no. Remember how CBS tried to turn the Wheel of Fortune host into a talk-show host? He was so horribly, desperately eager to please that he seemed to have no character -- Pat Sajak, a personable guy who unfortunately for him is cut out for the job he has now. (That'd be a horrible thing to say about ANYBODY in that job). And yet there might be a funny weatherman out there SOMEWHERE who could helm a talk show; Lord knows many weathermen are TRYING to be funny because that's how Letterman started.....

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WH Correspondents Dinner: The photos from the dinner mostly showed movie and TV stars who were there. Has it always been so focused on acting celebrities? I thought it was about journalists and reporters (and the White House staff). What a pity all areas of life seems to be infected by these so-called celebrities.

Tom Shales: Yes how true - and such a ragtag motley bunch of "celebrities," too. All the "news" organizations try to land a celebrity, however marginally they may qualify for the term "celebrity," for their table(s) at the shindig. There's something kind of pathetic about it. And I can't remember seeing a dinner program handled more sloppily. One guy doling out awards had apparently never heard of NBC's White House correspondent, and it was a White House correspondents' dinner - allegedly !

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Alexandria, Va.: O'Brien pushed Leno out of the Tonight Show. Leno pushed O'Brien back out of the Tonight Show. NBC giveth, and NBC taketh away. Why should we feel sorry for either one of those guys? As Robert Duvall said to the about-to-be- whacked Abe Vigoda in The Godfather, "It's business." If they don't like it, then they've chosen the wrong line of work in which to make their tens of millions of dollars.

Tom Shales: That's one way of looking at it. The old Abe Vigoda quote way. I think it's a news story because it's so out in the open. In previous times - perhaps until the FIRST of the late-night squabbles, Johnny and Jay and Jay's manager (now deceased) Helen Kushnik and all that stuff -- networks managed to keep this kind of stuff out of the public eye. But now everything is SPLAT right in the public eye, or right in the public face anyway. And we've come to realize that even at these seemingly rarefied levels, it can all be a tawdry soap opera and people can behave like swine. Wait -- I think I've just done some reckless swine-bashing....

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Sarah Silverman Fan: I read Sarah Silverman's autobiography. She writes how nothing she wrote for SNL ever aired. What is your understanding of how SNL writers operate? From the TV shows (such as "30 Rock"), it seemed like it is a collaborative effort. How do SNL skits get written?

Tom Shales: FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK!!! Not ha-ha funny either. Just pick up a copy of "Live from New York," the backstage story of Saturday Night Live. Folks, I am sorry to plug this old book (I saw a used copy for ONE CENT on Amazon the other day -- ONE CENT!!!!!!!!!) but you must admit, the circumstances all but demand it. If you read the book, you'll know that even Larry David during his year there as a writer claims not to have gotten anything on the air. They apparently work with a wildly lavish producing ratio, the way some directors shoot ten or twenty times as much footage as they'll ever need on a finished film. So on Saturday night at about 11 pm, SNL has enough material on hand to produce TWO new episodes, and by preening away to the "good" stuff, they supposedly come up with a wunnnerful wunnnerful show...... I thought Sarah's autobiography was about "bedwetting" (based on her appearance last night with Jimmy Fallon on his show)...

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Talk show host applicant: I am a funny weatherman. Where do I apply to be a talk show host? Well, I am not a weatherman, but I am funny. Again, where do I apply?

Tom Shales: Get noticed in any venue - and today the venue of choice of course is the web and YouTube. Produce a funny funny video, then another, then another. Play a continuing character in it yourself. Hope that it goes viral (and do what you and friends can to MAKE that hope happen) and that soon everybody is talking about it .. . and soon you may be hailed as a maverick genius .. though even then, you may be replaced in the pantheon by the NEXT maverick genius who's already got her or his sketch ready to roll......

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WHCD: So, then, who was in charge of the WHCD, and who should get the blame for how bad it was?

Tom Shales: "The Committee" -- journalists who have enough time to spare that they can worry about the details for a dinner, and such journalists SOMETIMES have that much time to spare because they aren't, perhaps, the most in-demand journalists in the world. You can tell this is a VERY sensitive area and I am already sorry I ever waded into it. Let's just forget the whole thing! So it was a mess of a television show - it still raised money for scholarships and so on.........

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Olney, Md.: Tom, I don't stay up past 10 (I TiVo any 10 p.m. programs for next day watching) and wouldn't watch the late night shows even if I did. I do not watch American Idol and never will. I have watched and enjoyed Dancing with the Stars and Survivor (before the reign of the Evil Troll Russell Hantz), but that's it for reality shows. There is a separate Lost chat. So please tell me what is the prognosis for my favorite non-Lost show FlashForward? I really enjoy that show a lot (and the presence of Sonia Walger & Dominic Monaghan helps!), so I'm hoping you'll have some good news about its renewal.

Tom Shales: Hellolney -- I wouldn't count on Flash Forward flashing forward (into next season) if I were you. Perhaps their season finale this year can tell viewers what would have happened if they'd done season finales for the next, oh, five or six seasons ... hmmmmm??? Sorry to sound flippant, it's just that the series does not seem to have ingratiated itself with enough viewers.........

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. S: A local TV sportstalk radio station yesterday had a segment on "bad ideas for TV shows." Somewhere from my memory banks came "Jackpot Bowling with Milton Berle." (I hope I have the title right). Sometime in the 1960s? Berle comes out (yes, he's at a bowling alley), tells some jokes, and gives a bowler (pro, amateur) a chance to win some $. If the bowler got six strikes in a row, he'd (men only) receive the huge sum of maybe $50,000. I think one bowler did hit it, and Berle went bananas. (Why not reconstitute it with Jay Leno -- it would give him another prime time shot).

Tom Shales: Good memory, my fair Herndonian! (i am NOT making fun of Herndon, as I was accused of doing once when I tried this with another town -- the details of that, like almost everything else, are fuzzy). How's this, I remember a joke Berle told on that horrible series! It was something about how they should make the wings of airplanes with dotted lines attaching them to the planes, because after all, toilet paper has dotted lines and it can't ever be torn apart - er, on the dotted lines - uh, you see what makes that funny? NO? Well that's why Jackpot Bowling went bye-bye fairly quickly -- actually it returned in syndication with a less auspicious, more appropriate host. This is REALLY ancient stuff, King Tut-era - but I truly thank you for such diligence or vigilance or maybe both - dilivigilance.

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Bethesda: Today's first poster wrote: "As a TV critic, I'm just shocked that you let this kind of fluff to tantalize you to write a column that has been written hundreds of times over 5 months ago."

First: is s/he a TV critic?

Second: is s/he literate?

Tom Shales: Now now, let's not be picky on grammatical stuff. I say that not in defense of the first poster (still not used to that term) but in defense of myself, someone who makes many mistakes in this format because it's much like talking, only you type it. Anyway, I still go out of my way never to split infinitives - and does anyone care??? I don't think even my wonderful 8th-grade English teacher, Miss Peterson, cares at this point..... (I still remember the mnemonic device, if that's what it is, for this rule: "Never end a sentence a preposition with." OH NO, wait, that's a DIFFERENT rule. Sorry!) --

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WHCD: Well, it could have been worse. The dinner could have been scheduled to be held on the Gulf Coast.

Tom Shales: Ouch! How true. It could have been scheduled for three weeks earlier in Iceland, too -- (welllll, maybe not)....

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Re Pat Sajak: If last night's episode of Jeopardy is to believed, Pat Sajak started as a weatherman too. He was actually pretty funny as a Jeopardy contestant.

Tom Shales: Quite possible. You know, I think I'd be pretty funny as a Jeopardy contestant. I'd be LOUSY, but my bumbling and fumbling around might be funny......

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New York, N.Y.: Tom, what's your thought on the Islam picture controversy? Should we only accommodate one religion's demands over others simply because people threaten violence?

Tom Shales: All religions should become insufferable intolerable bullies and threaten violence and then we would have an evil playing field -- sorry, I meant an equal playing field. But it would be evil, come to think of it, and it already is, come to think of it, but I mean no disrespect to ANY of the world's great religions, especially the kind that bombs your house if you don't bow and scrape to them.

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Bethesda, Md.: He never asked about the hypocritical nature of Conan not wanting to shift times for Leno, but not have a problem asking Lopez to switch times for him. ----------------------------------

The difference is Jay handed over The Tonight Show to Conan and then reneged. Conan never handed The George Lopez Show over to George Lopez.

Tom Shales: That is true, and an important distinction. Also there's this: Lopez isn't funny.

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If WHCD is a fundraser: shouldn't Jay have done it pro bono? Just wondering how many scholarships his appearance cost.

Tom Shales: The C-SPAN announcer made a point of saying that Mr Leno would be paid a fee for his performance, but didn't say what the fee was. And though he said he thought it would go to charity, he also said he couldn't be sure of that.....

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Minneapolis, Minn.: Hi Tom -- Thank you for taking questions today. I've been an avid Law and Order watcher since day one, and the thing I've loved most about the show is that we get virtually nothing about the private lives of the characters (or just enough). So this season we have Lt Van Buren's "cancer arc." Don't get me wrong -- Ms. Merkerson is a wonderful actress -- but something about it seems, well, contrived to me...designed to get her an Emmy (or at least a nomination) before she leaves the show (which, if sources are to believed, is going to happen this season). And while we're at it, what's the future of the show? Is it really, finally, truly going to call it quits this season?

Tom Shales: Well WHICH Law & Order do ye mean? Certainly not ALL of them! Oh, the original? How much original is left of the original? I'm sorry, I have sort of lost track. I think those of us who like/admire the show have favorite eras featuring favorite casts even though this is largely a cast-proof show, and part of the reason for that is we almost never see the actors in scenes of their characters' private home lives. So as for the "cancer arc" -- it is tremendously if horribly plausible, and apparently was devised so that S. Epatha could do something other than just vanish without an explanation at the end of the current season. Will it be back? I would think that NBC would want to bring it back because as a "brand," it is just about incomparable........

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Wheaton, Md.: You know, I just can't feel sorry for Conan. With a glimpse of his mansion-like house, gardens and beautifully furnished surroundings, it somehow just didn't seem the same as when I was laid off from Sprint, in my dinky-doodle house in Wheaton, combing the want ads and Internet for just a measly $45,000/year job with health insurance and 2 weeks paid vacation. If Conan wants something to complain about, let him come talk to me. How can a multi-millionaire whine like that? Get over it -- most everyone loses a job in their lifetime (some of us multiple times)and we just get on with it.

Tom Shales: Dinky Doodle House, eh? I think we had the same contractor. Dinky Doodle Limited - VERY limited. In Conan's defense, he's not out of line with others in his line of work, as far as payment goes. Good grief, Johnny made more and that was more than a decade ago. Of course he had demonstrated a certain -- mmm -- longevity (so have I, but what does it get me? Not so much as a gold-PLATED watch). I mean if Larry King really does make $15 million a year, shouldn't Conan be far more richly rewarded???

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WHCD: I am sort of disappointed that, in their quest for "celebrities" to host at their table, some news agency didn't invite the Salahis.

Tom Shales: Oh yeah, that would have been cool, to quote every kid in America. Maybe it's considered a "sore point" by the various security agencies involved or at least represented. MEANWHILE, HERE'S FLASH FOR YOU FLASH-FORWARD FANS -- Emily Yahr reports from TV Team Central (somewhere deep in the Andes mountains) that ABC has yet to announce whether the series will return next year and that there probably will be no definitive word until the "upfronts" for all the networks' new fall seasons -- in ABC's case, May 18th. Thank you, Emily!!!

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"Southland" fan: Any chance NBC will do for "Southland" what they've done with "L and O: CI" and "Friday Night Lights," namely restore a series to NBC network broadcasting after it's run first on cable? (Some of us don't have cable, you know).

Tom Shales: You don't have cable after ALL this time? Well if you feel you don't need it, then why get it? I think what has happened to Friday Night Lights is truly freaky, but then the business if just crammed with freakee happenings these days. This one, bringing Southland back as it's bringing FDL's back, just sounds way too unlikely to happen, but that does not mean Impossible. "Impossible" things are happening every day (sang who in what TV musical?)..........

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The MD 'Burbs: Tom,

You are an absolute hoot. I'm a fairly young reader (almost 30!), and up until recently, I was not at all familiar with your work -- but now that I am -- I find you absolutely delightful! Aside from your fairly bizarre obsession with the borderline awful SNL (I used to love it too, I've just made my peace with how bad it's gotten), and the often extremely dated TV references, I absolutely love your reviews and columns, generally. Just wanted to let you know that you've made a new fan! That being said: Any insider info on the new Conan show? I'm hoping that Max and Andy come along for the ride. Can you at least tell me if there's a good chance of that happening? Thanks!

Tom Shales: Thank you so much. Especially since I do worry about those "dated" references. I made one to Arthur Godfrey several years ago and the Style Editor at the time said, "Couldn't you come up with something A LITTLE more current?" And she was so right, it was ridiculous. I think I have selective amnesia and that somehow the 90s have slipped away. Who was president then - Clinton? It all seems to have been dreamed rather than lived. Yet I am sure I will snap out of it at some future point and look out because there'll be all these dreadful columns about TV in the 90s coming your way then...... Thanks again really. And though I don't much care what happens to Andy, Conan's over-praised announcer-boy, I do miss Max Weinberg and his band, very much. Maybe Max is touring China or Africa or who knows where with Bruce Springsteen -- Max has quite an interesting professional life, of course. He is TERRIFIC.

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Lopez isn't funny: Tom,

Since you said this let me ask you: Who thinks he is ?

I have never understood how he became famous. There are lots of comedians I don't think are funny but almost all of them have some kind of edge or gimmick that I can imagine some find funny.

Tom Shales: This is not at all in a million years to say that Hispanics don't have great senses of humor, but Mr Lopez does benefit from a certain shortage of Latin-American comedians. He is NOT famous or popular just because he is Latino - it would surely be wrong and racist to make such a contention. But he has himself exploited this asset as a means to becoming more famous than he might otherwise justifiably be. There, have I said that diplomatically enough? There have been wonderful Latino comics: I just don't think he's one of the "wonderful" ones.........

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D.C.: I'm not a huge fan of either Conan or Jay. But, I thought Conan came across very cocky in the 60 minutes interview. Maybe that's his schtick? Not too appealing to me!

Tom Shales: He did seem a trifle self-important, but then any head is likely to swell when one is being made such a fuss over. And do keep in mind, he worked long and hard to get the "Tonight" show gig (not as long or as hard as Leno worked, but whatever--) so it is ipso fatso, I mean FACTO, a very very important thing to him (I was interrupted there by an infernal POP-UP ad which you did not see but which is an unconscionable irritation, one of thousands along the old internet trail)........

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Internet grammar: I try not to let my participles dangle.

Tom Shales: And from what we hear, you've been quite successful at it.

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Baltimore, Md.: Bad ideas for TV shows: From roughly the same era as Berle's bowling show there was You're In The Picture, hosted by Jackie Gleason, then the medium's biggest star, in all meanings of the word. People would put their heads through those kinds of cardboard cutouts you used to see at amusement parks, then they could ask questions and try to guess if they were a cowboy, or waitress or whatever. It lasted one episode. The next week, The Great One came out, sat in an easy chair and proceeded to apologize for what he called the biggest bomb in the history of television, all while decorously sipping "coffee." I really saw this as a kid (loved Gleason) and to this day it stands in my mind as one of the most amazing mea culpas ever.

Tom Shales: Yes, who but Gleason could so devilishly turn a fiasco into a triumph? To have been watching those two episodes live and see that as it happened -- wow. It was exciting, crazy as that sounds (a bad show flops and it's "exciting"? Well such was TV in the early days). No one but me seems to remember this Early TV moment from a filmed show, not a live one -- on "The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show," one of the neighbors, Harry Morton, husband of Blanche, was played by a well-known "B" actor who asked for a raise from producer Burns (this was not part of the plot, this really happened behind-the-scenes) and Burns said no and hired another actor to replace him. And on this actor's debut episode, he was to enter and be clunked over the head by Blanche wielding a breakaway vase. But George entered instead, told the audience about the new actor who had been cast as Harry, and the show went on, with the new actor getting the vase on the brain. I am sorry not to know both names - but one of the Harry's was the great character actor Fred Clark, who usually played bald fussbudgets)......

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Washington, D.C.: Tom, I love your chats as much as I love Weingarten's chats and I love his as much as I love yours. I am LOL'ing and on the floor and such. Will you be my boyfriend?

Tom Shales: Yes. By the way, are you a boy or a girl? I'm getting to be so old that -- well anyway, I have been getting proposals of marriage (marriage, mind you! I know yours isn't that, don't worry) since i was a disc jockey in my home town. However for every marriage proposal there would be another listener who would ask which rock I had crawled out from under. It's been two steps forward, three steps back ever since. Thank you for the undeservedly kind remarks though!

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WHCD:: Shouldn't White House Correspondents dinner be attended (among others, of course) by the journalists who actually report from the White House? I missed seeing my favorite CBS correspondent Bill Plante. I checked the guest list and he was not there. Is he still at the White House?

Tom Shales: Yes I am - pretty sure -- Bill is still there. Some of his face is missing; he had, it appears, a bit of "work done" years ago in order to stay young looking; such is the appearance tyranny under which even the most distinguished journalists labor at CBS News and similar joints........

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Anonymous: I know the common wisdom in that Stephen Colbert bombed at 2006 WCD, but I've always been a defender of his. I was an undergrad when that happened and I'd never even heard of Washington Correspondents' Dinner, yet I got that the link send to me from over a dozen different people. How many WCD comics can have that much affect.

If you read Charlie Cook or Chuck Tood or any other D.C. big wigs, in early 2006 they were predicting that Dems wouldn't more then ten seats in the House that November. In the end, Dems got more 30. I think Stephen Colbert's routine was the canary in the coalmine in that show much displeasure there really was out in the nation against Bush 43 administration.

Tom Shales: Persuasively stated theory - thank you very much. We are almost out of time; sorry I rattled on so much on some of the questions today..........

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My weekly Chuck plea: Mr. Shales, Love you. Love your chat. This is my weekly plea for news about Chuck. Do you have an opinion on the likelihood of its renewal? PLEASE?

Tom Shales: Another report from Emily Yahr in TV Team HQ (and it's an HD HQ by the way - nothing but the best) -- The fate of "CHUCK" will most likely be announced by NBC at that network's "upfronts" on May 17. Think of the NFL Draft but without football players. Or football.......

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Anonymous: Leno is king because mediocrity is king. He's a McDonalds meal while reading USA Today

Tom Shales: Excellent analogy. We have the best darn chatterers on this "show," if that's the right term ... but now as it must to all chat sessions, the sun has set on this one. THANK YOU VERY MUCH for the comments and questions and for answering the queries I couldn't handle. Ahem. Hope you can come back next week, because I have to......

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