Two late night interview show hosts of different generations. Both of the Johnny Carson linage.
Tom Snyder covered a lot of bases: radio personality, news anchor, late night interview. By the time he accepted the invitation to follow Johnny Carson at midnight, Snyder had carved out a long news career. Ha anchored news shows in various cities including New York and Los Angeles, even continuing the news biz after he began The Tomorrow Show in 1973 for NBC.
In his hour-long Tomorrow Show interview format, Snyder often just had one guest. It was often a relaxed interview although he could ask some tough questions, but he would develop a rapport with his guest to drill into some deeper areas. An hour long conversation with John Lennon was one of my favorite shows. Snyder wasn’t the hippest personality, but he had an open and curious mind, so he could find common ground with his guests. He interviewed actors, writers, politicians, musicians and even Charles Manson.
Snyder opened his show with some observations or described something he had done. This was not exactly a monologue, it was more stream of consciousness as he talked until the first commercial break. He usually had a cigarette in hand and laughed at his own remarks. He seemed to enjoy the hour often more than his guests.
What made this such an interesting show was Snyder’s ability to create interest in some of his driest guests. He was a great interviewer and often sat wide-eyed with some very famous people. But he also didn’t let people bullshit him either. Snyder has a nose for truth.
After leaving Tomorrow, he went back to television news, until David Letterman called him to host an interview show on CBS following his new talk show opposite Jay Leno and the Tonight Show. Letterman was Johnny Carson’s pick to succeed him, but that did not happen, so Letterman went to CBS and offered the hour following his new show to Snyder. He hosted The Late Late Show from 1995 to 1999. Afterward he did a variety of things, but downshifted his public life until he passed away in 2007.
Snyder made a few appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Whenever he did, it was like he was visiting the mountain to pay respect to the exulted one. Snyder played up the respect thing to Carson, but it was plain that he deeply respected the man who made his show possible. Carson’s contract with NBC have him control of the hour following The Tonight Show.
Although Snyder was from an older generation he was not exactly square. He had a devilish sense of humor and bristled at corporate bureaucracy. His talk show was so late at night that he knew the NBC brass didn’t stay up to watch, so there was a looseness in his style. He also joked about firing up a colortini to enjoy during the show. Snyder was bright, but he wasn’t stuffy about what he knew, he projected an aura of an average guy who fell into a great gig, and he was going to enjoy every moment of it. RIP Tom Synder.
That would also describe the attitude of Conan O’Brien, his nerdish behavior gave you the impression that he was afraid of being found out as an impostor and fired from the show. Here was a former writer for Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons with virtually no hosting experience. After David Letterman left NBC for CBS, Conan was hired to take over Late Night. He hosted the show from 1993 to 2009.
As much as I loved David Letterman in his early days, Conan O’Brien took it to a new gear. Letterman brought his smug, irreverence to late night programming. His show looked like NBC didn’t want to invest big money in it, but Letterman did not seem to care. Traditional network talk show? No way. When Conan took over Letterman’s spot, the show reminded you of Wayne’s World. The set was nothing to brag about, the guests were Tonight Show rejects and Conan and sidekick Andy Richter were literally Wayne and Garth.
In the first years, NBC would not give Conan any job security. The reviews were mediocre and the ratings slow to build. In reality, the show was close to cancellation, but he found his traction and later the audience.
Conan always seemed to act like he was auditioning for the job, he was the most insecure network talk show host. His schick was goofy, never overly hip, but endearing. He constantly made fun of himself and never got ahead of the audience. In the early days, Conan would try anything. Whereas Letterman enjoyed bucking the network brass and calling attention to his mischief, Conan naively didn’t realize there were boundaries, he thought the world was his playground.
Two of Conan’s episodes are ingrained in my memory. One show he did from a sidewalk on a busy street. He set up a camera and he set up a small desk and chairs, and had his band. He conducted the show as the city went on around him. Why did he do this? No one else had. Sure, there were interview segments, man on the street interviews, going all the way back to Steve Allen. But no one had actually done a show from the street. There were interruptions, loud noises and constant awareness of everything going on, but it showed a real knack for the surreal.
The other show, that more people probably remember, was the 2006 claymation episode where everyone on the show was a claymation animated character, like Mr. Bill. Why would anyone do this? It is expensive and time-consuming to shoot, but it was unique and funny.
In 2009, Leno left The Tonight Show, and Conan took over. It was part of Conan’s recent deal with the network. Unfortunately, ratings and network acceptance were not there for Conan, and they immediately started plans to bring Leno back from prime time to late night. Various ideas were kicked around and eventually Conan was out, and Leno was back. In 2010, Conan ended up at TBS, where he has been ever since, although his show was shortened from an hour to thirty minutes in 2019, and without his band.
Leaving NBC, Conan’s lawyers negotiated a $32M exit, while also including his writers and production folks with a nice exit package as well. Small consolation for being treated so shabbily. The Tonight Show is the grand prize for talk show hosts, but to be honest, I never thought that Conan was a good fit. Do not get me wrong, Conan is good enough, but that show is not his style, at least it was not then.
Conan and Tom Snyder had their niches and they were very good at them. Snyder is out there in the universe with his cigarette and colortini, laughing at some irony in life. Conan will continue at TBS for a few more years and keep doing his side gigs. Snyder climbed his mountains and he was good. When Conan scaled the late night talk show mountain, reaching The Tonight Show, it was not all that. A decade later, he is sitting atop a different mountain and enjoying life. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere.