A recent recrimination, which I will grumble (and have) to anyone who will listen, is how chat shows—increasingly bent in format for abbreviated attention spans—are killing the witty raconteur. The majority of celebrities have always been desperately boring anyhow, when obliged to be themselves, but we seem to have even fewer genuine characters populating late-night these days. I don't believe the simple answer—it's down to the quality of our celebrities, compared to days gone by—is the right answer; of course we tend to recall only the best and compare them to those whose legacies are still merely wet clay. Instead, I blame the modern chat show and its contempt for the authentic and spontaneous, when the truly charming can never be anything else.
The modern chat show chugs and churns, manufactures a product out of allegedly hilarious comedy bits and stultifying interviews administered by hosts hired for their entertainment credentials, not their conversational skills. Worse yet are the short-format shows like The Daily Show, which have no business even asking a guest to suffer through the drive-by they call an interview segment. If you're a political giant like Al Gore, or an entertainment god with fans on the staff like Tom Waits, you might be granted two segments, thusly approaching something reasonably worth your time. If you have the bad luck of being neither Gore nor Waits, you'd better talk fast and keep grinning, because you end up with about 30 seconds by the time Jon Stewart, great host but terrible interviewer, stops talking. If you've got a lovely story in you, we'll never know, because when blessed with legitimately interesting and witty guests, most hosts have no idea what do with them—namely, shut the fuck up.
Blue Girl reminded me that I've been meaning to post a little something mourning the death of raconteurs by suffocating formats and murderous hosts for the past week, after seeing, on The Daily Show and David Letterman, genuine character and bearer of the greatest unintentional gay porn name ever Peter O'Toole. BG's got the video and transcript of O'Toole on TDS, an appearance which—after the intro and movie clip—lasts in its entirety about four minutes, approximately the same amount of time it would take O'Toole to tell a great anecdote in his inimitable style.
That's a piece of information Letterman clearly knows. O'Toole tells a story about a particular exploit with Peter Finch ("Finchy") that is so funny, I was in absolute stitches for all of the nearly four minutes he takes to tell it in his incomparable way. I wanted more more more—I could listen to O'Toole talk for hours—and I got almost 11 full minutes. Letterman's one of the greatest hosts for never being afraid to let someone else be the funniest person on the stage, and it makes his show one of the only ones left where a raconteur like O'Toole can really shine, where wit is still valued over mirth, as well it should be.