Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Talk is Cheap

Before television (BT), you had to have talent to command the public’s attention. And you had to work for years to develop that talent. Comedians like Jack Benny, George Burns, and Bob Hope, singers like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby, and Jimmy Durante, dancers like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Eleanor Powell had to spend a long apprenticeship practicing their craft, sharpening their timing, learning how to play to an audience.

Then came television, and a new kind of “talent” appeared: For want of a better word, we’ll call it personality. People with no discernible talent in the traditional sense sought to make it by talking to an audience. In the earliest days of television, when the networks were desperate for something to fill time, there was a late-night show called “Broadway Open House,” with a comedian, sort of, named Jerry Lester. Steve Allen (who actually had talent), Dave Garroway, and Jack Paar followed, building a following, not by singing or dancing or playing an instrument, but by talking. Arthur Godfrey was cut from the same cloth, and of course Ed Sullivan was the embodiment of the no-talent star. He had less talent than your third-grade teacher or your plumber, but he became a sensation simply by attracting and introducing talented people like the Beatles.

Years before television, a talker named Will Rogers was immensely popular for his humor and, yes, personality. Rogers had a talent – rope-twirling – but that was beside the point, and he was the first to prove that one could parlay wit and political commentary into national fame and fortune. But Rogers was a one-off phenomenon in the BT era. All the others needed to be able to do something to achieve stardom.

Johnny Carson occupies a special category: the talented comedian who channels that talent into a late-night variety show, in which a singer or comedian or pianist performs, then sits and banters with the host. No one could do that like Carson.

Another special category is reserved for Oprah Winfrey. I shouldn’t even comment on Oprah, since hers is not a prime-time program, and since I haven’t watched her enough to comment intelligently. But if she has any performing talent I’m unaware of it. She obviously connects with her audience, as Arthur Godfrey connected with his audience.

That brings us to Jay Leno and David Letterman, each of whom has a skosh more talent than Ed Sullivan but not enough for you to notice. NBC has just moved Leno to the 10 PM slot to revolutionize evening television, they say, but in fact to save money. Talk is cheap. A talker like Leno costs a fraction of the money it takes to produce a drama, with all those actors, writers, cameramen, special effects, etc. No one really expects viewers’ habits to change much, except that more people may decide to see what’s on PBS or the cable channels at 10 o’clock. More likely, they’ll log onto the internet.

Letterman, once he finishes his opening monologue (that others write for him) is no Will Rogers. He is not even a Jack Paar and he is not remotely a Johnny Carson. He is in the news today for his admitted dalliance with female subordinates, but whatever credit he claimed for “fessing up” was wiped out when he used his embarrassment as the basis of a one-liner. No talent, no class.

But the fade-out of late-night talk was bound to happen, just as the decline of newspapers and magazines had to happen. A digital earthquake has hit the media world, and the aftershocks keep coming. I keep getting magazines even though my subscriptions expired long ago, and the publishers try to lure me back with $10 “special” subscription rates. I don’t bite.

When Leno and Letterman are gone (which, happily, may be soon), it would be nice if television rediscovered the value of talent. The kind of talent you used to see on The Bell Telephone Hour, Your Show of Shows, The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Carol Burnett Show. A show like any of those would cost money, but I’ll bet it would wipe out the prime-time competition. If I’m wrong – if most people would rather watch Jay Leno or “Reality TV” or American Idol, then our collective taste has sunk so far that it is beyond salvation.