Everybody’s talking about tv this week, which makes it pretty much like every other week of the year, only right now they’re talking less about what’s on it, more about who’s on it. On Tuesday morning, Brian Williams, the jovial but “trusted” face of ratings-leading NBC News, was suspended without pay for six months over a bit of erroneous reporting about his own experiences during the Iraq war. Then, late that same afternoon, Jon Stewart announced at a taping of THE DAILY SHOW that he intended to leave his job of 16 years within the next few months. By Tuesday night, the two men’s roles had shifted. Brian Williams was revealed as a serial resume-fluffing showboat, and Jon Stewart, a former stand-up comic, was now arguably, if only temporarily, the most trusted name in tv news, by virtue of abdication.
I feel for Williams. He seems to be a nice guy who was blessed with the looks and the voice, and also with the rare ability to poke fun at his own profession without disrespecting it. These qualities made him, and they may also break him. The first time I was ever aware of him was at a 2004 preview screening of ANCHORMAN at which Will Ferrell was interviewed in character afterward. Ferrell’s SNL castmates turned out in force to whoop and holler and sat in the rows just in front of and behind us: Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Jimmy Fallon, Ana Gasteyer, Amy Poehler, Chris Parnell, etc., probably some writers too. Somebody pointed out this tall, distinguished guy who looked like a Hollywood casting director’s idea of an anchorman, being escorted down to a very close seat. “That’s Brian Williams…he just took over for Tom Brokaw.” They even made a crack about him from the stage, but time has erased the details. A jolly occasion. (I met Tim Robbins, who has a cameo, in the lobby…he’s basketball tall.)
The fullness of time instructs that it’s probably right and proper that I first beheld Williams at a movie-studio event featuring a parody of a newscaster. He has always wanted to straddle the news and entertainment divisions. After all, his idol Brokaw graduated from light (THE TODAY SHOW) to heavy (NBC NIGHTLY NEWS), but those were the days when NBC News supervised both shows; TODAY is now so louche that I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that’s not true any more. Williams himself went further. He became The Coolest Anchorman Ever, chatting with Letterman, sparring with Stewart, slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon, even hosting an episode of SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE: not since Ron Nessen had SNL strayed so far into the real world that you and I inhabit. The most amazing fact I learned out of this whole kerfuffle was that when it looked like Jay Leno was leaving for sure, Williams raised his hand: he seriously wanted to be considered for the TONIGHT SHOW hosting gig. That, I didn’t know about him.
What could turn a King Of The World, aware enough to be a self-deprecator, into a craven self-aggrandizer? After all, he got the facts right when he first reported about the Iraq choppers at the time. (The one ahead of his was hit by an RPG, not the one he was in. Still admittedly very scary, but not the same, as the vets who were with him kept pointing out and pointing out and pointing out.) You might as well ask O.J. or Tiger or Nixon why they risked their earthly royalty with, let’s just say, ill-considered behavior. And exactly how rare is this phenomenon? Haven’t you exaggerated something in your past to make yourself look better? I know I have, and before you righteously peg me as an aberration, I must point out that this is common enough to be a sitcom trope: hubby is happily pontificating, and the wife jabs him with the pinprick of truth that deflates him, har har har. Also, keep repeating the same harmless fabrication in public for years and years and years and even you may come to believe it. My uninformed guess is, that’s exactly what happened to Brian Williams.
As this was “breaking” over the weekend, somebody asked me, “Do you think he’ll lose his job over this?” I said, “Yes.” “Do you think he should?” I said, “Yes.” That’s cold, turkey, especially because I still like the guy. But if I’m his boss, I have to cut him away. (The question was asked at the point when Williams had decided on his own to take some time off. NBC News, shamefully, had not yet officially weighed in.) I replied, “Look at what he does for a living.” He has to stare into a camera and tell people, this is what happened today, I swear it is, forget about that Iraq stuff, I’m rehabilitated now. Most thoughtful people will look at him askance. Viewers of the verbal geek-shows on Fox News won’t even be that kind. NBC has no choice but to find another way forward. I’ve read that Williams is “shattered,” and that hurts me too. But news is news and trust is trust, and that’s precisely how NBC has marketed him, for cryin out loud. On the other hand, let’s not forget that NBC NIGHTLY NEWS is on top in the ratings right now because of Brian Williams, and if there’s any possible way to weasel out of this and preserve that advantage, perhaps by cloning an Iraq-fudging-free duplicate, the NBC suits will be on it like white on rice. Whatever brings the eyeballs.
Time was displaced weirdly on that strange day. At the top of his show Tuesday night, Jon Stewart said he had some business to get to, that you (we, the tv viewers) probably know something the studio audience (the ones who had stood outside shivering in the cold) did not, but we’d take care of that later. This is because THE DAILY SHOW rolls tape in the late afternoon: I think around 4, maybe 5. (I was there once, but the weather was much better.) So anybody who was physically in the studio with him (and, to be fair, the publicity department, painfully aware of all this too) had heard Jon’s announcement by, say, 6pm at the latest, in time to tweet all their friends/bosses. By the time the episode aired at 11pm, the whole country already knew Jon was resigning. At air, the studio audience, trapped in late-afternoon real-time, was actually the last to know. Calling Christopher Nolan!
As he fought away tears, the finest thing Jon told his audience was: “this show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host, and neither do you.” What were we to make of the fact that Jon took summer 2013 off to direct (evidently rather credibly; I’ve not seen it yet) a movie? Or that he tapped John Oliver to fill in for him? (One of the all-time greatest DAILY SHOW episodes ever was Oliver’s first, when the whole “correspondent” infrastructure seemed to break down over petty jealousy. Every joke topped the previous one. Classic.) What you, I, Glenn Beck, everybody, has to take away is that Jon Stewart has skin in THE DAILY SHOW. It’s not a berth, as with Hannity or O’Reilly. To him, it’s a lifestyle. The Times ran a piece Wednesday on how politicians are crying alligator tears upon seeing Jon go. I can tell you that book publicists are crying real tears. We can only hope that Colbert finds a way to open 11:35 to more books, as he’s hinted he might. The Stewart-Colbert hour was the last stand for authors who deserved tv time in a culture that doesn’t seem to care. You could tell when Jon had been really rocked by a book, not just pro-forma politeness, and that earnest look to camera could make a TBR bestseller.
Could John Oliver take over now? The conventional wisdom was that he’d been a victim of poor timing: he got his weekly HBO show before Colbert split for CBS, otherwise he would have been a shoo-in for the 11:30 spot. (Remember: Colbert battled the monologues of Jay, Jimmy and Dave among younger viewers, and, over time, stared them all down.) But now Oliver’s a hit, and can afford to tell Comedy Central that he doesn’t care to host a four-night-a-week clambake. What he and his writers on LAST WEEK TONIGHT have managed to do is to stretch out the DAILY SHOW format and, after the monologue and such, air a ten-minute, meticulously researched piece each week on a single topic. FIFA. Beauty pageants. The India election. Etc. LAST WEEK TONIGHT blurs satire and journalism in a way the others can’t — plus, the host gets to vent his spleen unbleeped. I can’t imagine him going back to basic cable.
In the Colbert slot is Larry Wilmore, and after less than a month behind the desk, he’s already proven that he can carry a show. I’m glad the title changed from THE MINORITY REPORT to THE NIGHTLY SHOW, because the former monicker seemed to marginalize the show too severely. (Although it’s great that black culture has its own comedy show once again — Larry was one of the writers on IN LIVING COLOR — and who else would be able to hone in so hard on the Bill Cosby scandal?) Improving on LAST WEEK’s lead, THE NIGHTLY SHOW usually sticks to one topic for the full half hour. It’s still grasping toward its format: the four-person panel segments feel too rushed, albeit while introducing us to a bunch of bright under-the-radar comics, and the “Keep It 100” segment, in which the host asks absurd what-if questions to his guests, may wear out its welcome sooner than intended. But the show is current as hell: the last moment each night is a Tweeted question to the host, one that he sees for the first time on the spot. On Wednesday, the surprise question was, “Would you go back to host THE DAILY SHOW?” (He said no.)
Of course, the big question mark in all this ruckus is Stephen Colbert. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at the demise of THE COLBERT REPORT wasn’t over a fear of losing this great improvisational master; we’ll actually see more of him as he does a whole hour on CBS, five nights a week. It was about losing the character he played, the right-wing buffoon who poked holes in the conservative mass media by pretending to be one of them. This near-decade-long bit of performance art fooled everyone at first, especially whoever booked Colbert for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2006 (early reports were that he bombed and people walked out. Then we noticed that the reports were all coming from Bushies, and when we actually saw the speech, it was brave and hilarious). Colbert’s right-wing gasbag character was able to speak truth to power in a new, visceral way, which we’ll all miss. But just as David Letterman deconstructed the talk show format, maybe an out-of-character Colbert and his very fine writers will be able to do the same.
And then there’s the guy nobody’s talking about, the man who will take over for the departing Colin Ferguson in CBS late-late-night land: British actor James Corden, whose lightning-fast improv skills are no secret to anyone who saw him in ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS — as I did. So much change in such a short time. Think about it: by the end of this year, the senior guy in late-night will be…Jimmy Kimmel.
By now, THE DAILY SHOW is as much a format as THE TONIGHT SHOW, which has survived the loss of Jack Paar, Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. Most of the people just named have come up as possible replacements for Jon Stewart in the past few days, along with a chorus of feminists who think it’s past time for a Sarah Silverman or Amy Schumer to be sitting behind one of those desks. If the show were on NBC, I’d even throw Brian Williams’s name into the hat. The show won’t be the same. It can’t be. But somebody will step up, and there’s no reason this franchise can’t survive for a good long time, unless powerful people suddenly stop doing and saying stupid things. Ya think?
2/17/15: HBO has moved quickly. Today they picked up LAST WEEK TONIGHT for two more seasons, through 2017, taking John Oliver out of the DAILY SHOW replacement sweepstakes. I think LAST WEEK is a better gig for him, and evidently he agrees.
2/25/15: And now we’re enjoying a little dustup involving Fox News blowhard Bill O’Reilly. Seems this bilious gasbag was nowhere near the Falkland Islands when he “covered” the war for CBS News per his frequent and loud boasting. Unlike Brian Williams, though, this actually works in O’Reilly’s favor. He’s no longer a newsman. He’s long since become a one-sided pundit: nobody particularly trusts him on anything at all. Not only won’t O’Reilly lose his job for serial lying, he’ll be able to paint it as one more example of continuing persecution by the “haters” of the “liberal media.” He’s already begun that defensive campaign in his trademark boorish, bullying style.