In his occasionally salacious but richly layered biography of Johnny Carson, Henry Bushkin (Carson's longtime lawyer, compadre and acolyte) describes a party in 1979, at the home of Gina and Henry Mancini. The guests included Jack Lemmon, Gene Kelly, Roger Moore, James Stewart, Michael Caine, Cary Grant and their ilk. In Bushkin's telling, and his voice is legitimized throughout this volume by his generally having been in the actual room at the time, these formidable but interchangeable egos are cowed by the mere possibility of an appearance that evening by the singular host of "The Tonight Show."
"None of these actors could do what Carson did," Bushkin writes. "When guests like Stewart or Kelly or Lemmon came on 'The Tonight Show,' they were naked — no lines, no characters, no director — just themselves. Carson helped them by drawing out the qualities that made them seem interesting, glamorous, witty and fun. He played the straight man to their jokesters, the pupil to their masters, the fan to their stardom."
As Bushkin's addictive stories of highballs and showgirls (and the odd loaded weapon) remind us, that was another era for the late-night TV host. And the unassuming Seth Meyers, with whom I chatted in Chicago last week, is not actually taking over "The Tonight Show," once NBC engineers its huge (and financially gut-wrenching) changing-of-the-late-night-guard next month. That duty falls to Jimmy Fallon, who replaces Jay Leno Feb. 17. Meyers is Fallon's replacement on "Late Night," which airs an hour later on the Peacock network and, to put it in terms drawn from Meyer's long background in Chicago sketch comedy, is what the e.t.c. stage is to the mainstage over at The Second City.
The last thing Meyers needs, of course, is a Carson comparison. And he and his very savvy producer, Mike Shoemaker, have been in the business of lowering expectations, chatting about their later start time (11:30 p.m.), their interest in experimentation and quirk, and noting that they won't be at the top of the pecking order when it comes to snagging the must-get guests — stars of the wattage that burned so hungrily for Carson.
Tellingly, it was not Fallon's face that appeared on the cover of the Time Magazine I picked up in the doctor's office the other day. It was the good-looking, clean-cut visage of Meyers, looking as if fresh from the White House Correspondent's Dinner. And when I asked Meyers about his plans for the show, he mentioned three things immediately. The first was his desire to deliver a classic monologue every day. The second was desk comedy. The third was his love of playing the straight man.
I had consumed Buskin's addictive book in a single sitting (on a long plane ride), and I immediately thought of his carefully argued theory that Carson's most formidable weapon was fundamentally reactive, even comforting (qualities that did not translate to Carson's off-the-air demeanor). If you mentally track through the current roster of talk-show hosts — Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Kimmel, Fallon — you don't really find anyone who does not enjoy delivering the punch line themselves, wherever possible.
But that straight-man quality has been part of Meyers' formidable package of talent since I started watching him in the 1990s doing his show "Pick-ups and Hiccups" at the old Live Bait space on Chicago's North Side, and during the visits of Amsterdam's Boom Chicago sketch troupe to its namesake city. In "Pick-ups," Meyers indeed played the straight man to his old partner Jill Benjamin's manic antics. Benjamin was by far the funnier and zanier of the two, but she needed Meyers to make her shine. He made their show approachable, likable. He kept things protected. He knew how to both reflect and comfort his audience's insecurities.
His abilities at the desk are clear to anyone who watched him doing the "Weekend Update" section of "Saturday Night Live." And, to Meyers' great credit, he went out and acquired some classic stand-up bona fides, just as soon as he figured out he might need that skill in his arsenal. At The Vic in 2011, his stand-up set was a shrewd blend of the bedchamber and the political chamber, relationships and politics being his most successful sources of material.
In the face of the great late-night shuffle of 2014, one fascinating question is whether the picture Bushkin paints still applies — are actors still as terrified to go out and talk without pre-written material? (Bushkin quotes an old Rock Hudson line: "I can't order from a menu without using two writers to work up my lines.") In the era of Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, when the actor-writer demarcation has turned into a big smudge, that would seem archaic. It's not like Jennifer Lawrence needs writers.
Or would it?
It seems clear that Meyers will be able to go after some of the same audience as Jon Stewart ("The Daily Show") or Stephen Colbert ("The Colbert Report"), both master satirists and men of comparable smarts. Meyers is of that ilk and, for his bosses at NBC, that potential cable influx surely will be some of the value-added bonus for which they are hoping. When they write the book on the Meyers late-night era, perchance they will speak of the "fakenewsification" of the great American talk show. But I think not.
More likely, Meyers' sweet spot — just how sweet remains to be seen — will turn out to be a judicious blend of topicality and satirical opinion (enough to pull in viewers with those sensibilities), late-night edge and classic, Carson-esque comforts.
The needs of nervous actors who do not know what to say (some of whom also happen to be stars) are pretty simple, and timeless: They want to be in the care of the smartest person available. And if he's also going to throw them the punch line, well then, hey, why talk to anyone else?
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