TV talk shows multiply, testing format's appeal

THERE may be a limit to America's appetite for TV talk shows, but there's little sign of it at the moment. Among many new entries, most of the publicity has been swirling around this month's premi`ere of Joan Rivers on her syndicated late-night show, the kick-off program for still another hopeful ``fourth network.'' Much has also been made of a ``TV talk show war,'' since Rivers gained visibility on the Johnny Carson ``Tonight'' show on NBC, frequently substituted as host, and allegedly failed to let Carson know in timely fashion of her new role as competitor.

Meanwhile, lots of other personalities -- some veterans among them -- have plunged in or expect to soon. Dick Cavett, who, many felt, introduced a note of intellectual class to the genre years ago, is here again, this time splitting four nights a week on ABC with columnist Jimmy Breslin. In syndication, David Brenner and Oprah Winfrey are contenders, and comedian Robert Klein has a new show on cable, joining others like Regis Philbin.

The anarchic David Letterman, of course, inhabits the late-late night hours on NBC. His unpredictable style entertainingly dispatches the notion that talk show hosts are typecast, but in case anyone still thinks they are, consider these hosts or potential ones: Linda Ellerby, Gloria Steinem, Shecky Greene, and Monty Hall!

Some of these hosts were prot'eg'es or at least owe a lot to Carson, who is The Boss in terms of ratings (still tops), durability (24 years), and finesse (nearly everyone concedes he's the master). The preeminence of Carson's ``Tonight'' show rolls on, largely unchallenged by Joan Rivers's venture -- with which it competes in some markets -- even though Rivers gets respectable ratings.

It isn't the first time Carson has faced a varied field of competitors. Cavett and Merv Griffin were both opposite him some 16 years ago. The Cavett-or-Carson choice was a particularly interesting one, with Cavett offering a guest list that mixed show business, culture, and brainpower, and Carson doing a somewhat less formulaic version of his present program.

The current Rivers alternative is fundamentally closer to Carson than Cavett was, but the set allows larger-scale rock and pop numbers and her guest list suggests the show is reaching for a hipper, younger audience.

Still, talk shows ultimately boil down to a little pod of people -- host and guests -- sitting in conversation, where things either crackle or they don't. Carson is so skillful at making this equation work that most viewers barely notice the sensitive response mechanism at work. While Rivers often plays up to guests, Carson is a mock-regal presence for whom most guests play court jester -- but not all. Rodney Dangerfield told me years ago that he never took that role himself when on the Carson show and that he disliked the way others did.

Rivers's approach is more free-wheeling and mercurial. While ``Tonight'' has long since become a slightly calcified institution, her program has the atmosphere of an impromptu party, whose expert host -- although she has dropped the typical opening monologue -- maintains a flow of trendy comic chatter with guests. She adapts well to them and switches eagerly to their wavelengths.

The result is a softly supportive rapport, even though it is achieved through a hail of sometimes off-color and almost viperish gags about people not present, as if her comedy reflexes were constantly challenging her kindlier instincts.

Rivers says the complaints made about these cracks -- as well as the flap over the show itself -- are examples of male chauvinism.

In the November issue of the magazine Glamour, she notes ``If I were a man, everyone would say `He deserves his own show' . . . Women who can do `a man's job' as well or better are terribly threatening still.''

Rivers's trademark nightclub personality -- full of deliberate brassiness and comic asides -- has sustained years of substitute hosting. Whether it will be durable enough for the long haul of regular hosting may have something to do with Jack Paar's ``Midwest theory'' of talk-show personalities. At a lunch in New York he once suggested that the successful talk hosts -- Carson, Cavett, himself, and others -- tend to come from middle America rather than the coasts. Whatever their individual talents, people from there have a laid-back nature, he felt, that was simply made for that medium which media analyst Marshall McLuhan characterized as ``cool.''

For one night -- Nov. 29, 10-11 p.m., NBC -- ``Jack Paar Comes Home'' will remind viewers of what TV lost when he left the ``Tonight'' show in 1962 (despite one comeback try). In addition to his wit and resourcefulness as a conversationalist -- and his stunts -- he had a rarer quality: He was an actual person, reacting, thinking, saying things publicly that he really meant. He would weep on camera (and be scoffed at in the press). He would walk out of the show over an alleged network affront to his independence, leaving a flustered Hugh Downs to take over.

These are qualities -- like the genuine openness and intellectual curiosity of Paar's predecessor as host, Steve Allen -- that have long been missing in TV talk shows. Paar's unpredictable displays occurred not only because the show was live, but because the network accepted them as generators of news and therefore possibly an audience. Viewers accepted them because they sensed an emotional reality in Paar that was already extremely rare by 1962.

In today's media world, which has more room for talk shows (cable, expanding syndication, network), it will be interesting to see what kind of personalities survive.

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