Television column logo


By Carter B. Horsley

Like many mothers, mine loved Johnny Carson.

I liked him. He was a bright, quick, sharp adlibber, a good, positive interviewer and his monologues had a fine tempo even if his skits were not always inspired.

Jay Leno has proven to be a good replacement for Carson. While his monologues are a bit uneven, his self-deprecating skits are very amusing and his interviews are self-effacing and good-natured.

David Letterman is so constantly running amok that he steps on his own occasional comic brilliance. His interviewing skills rank in incompetence with Dick Cavett's. Despite his goofish charm, this nattily dressed stand-up comedian should stand up more and eat some humble pie and let his guests talk for a least a few moments. His musical director, Paul Shaeffer, may be a well-respected "studio" musicians (he twice made the cover of Keyboard Magazine, incredulously), but he is also more obnoxiously dumb and egotistical than Letterman. Pound the keyboards, gesticulate, but shut up and watch Howdy-Doody, Paul!

If Letterman's programs were highlighted into one weekly special, it would be mirthful and entertaining. Five nights a week of insipidness and teenage pranksterism is way too much. Bring back the Gong Show, or put him on opposite Oprah!

Charlie Rose dresses well and gets wonderful guests of whom he even asks important questions at his large unattractive circular table. The trouble is, Rose often forgets to give his guests an opportunity to answer, interrupting them with his own interpretations, or more questions, or lectures. The real joy watching his program is to see the rare guest boil over into a state of infuria and give up any pretense of having an intelligent dialogue. Rose obviously means well and his sincerity seems genuine. He's just often infuriatingly out of his league, and despite his pontificating rarely pulls it off. Still, if he could relax, a lot, and learn the art of listening, his program would be greatly improved.   As it is, it's pretty intelligent and Rose is improving.  It's a shame it's on at the same time in New York City as the 11PM newscasts.  He's sort of a combination of a bright, male Barbara Wa-Wa, a refined Dick Cavett, a dispassionate Jack Paar and a slick Tom Snyder, which is not to say he's a bad guy.  He should stop jousting, stop trying to be cosmic and let his great guests gush!

Over the years, Rose has improved and not imposed himself as much as before and occasionally he has a sensational interview such as April 6, 2010 when his guest was Mathias Dopfner, the CEO of Axel Springer, the largest media company in Europe. Mr. Dopfner could easily be the next James Bond or president of the United States or of the Common Market. He is extremely handsome but more importantly extremely intelligent and well-spoken. In his interview, he demonstrated a commanding and awesome understanding of the state of print journalism and the Internet. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are very bright but Dopfner is brilliant and his brilliance has nothing to do with being glib or quotable. It is Rose's lasting credit that he "found" Dopfner and let him have his say. (4/8/10)

Ted Koppel, on the other hand, is the very model of a television interviewer: intelligent, penetrating, courteous and fair. The nature of his "Nightline" program does not guarantee that all viewers will be interested on any given night, but Koppel has set the standard for serious and responsible television journalism and he and his fellow ABC-TV journalist Peter Jennings are the best in the history of journalism. Koppel at times, of course, is a bit straight-laced and one worries that he is not eating enough, but not that he doesn't have a sense of humor, best manifested in his moderation of special "town meetings."

Koppel finally retired and Jennings died and was replaced eventually by Diane Sawyer, a lightweight in comparison. (4/8/10)

Conan O'Brien has almost too effusive a good humor. He is a tame, relaxed David Letterman and his shows are pleasant fluff for teenagers, who should be asleep. In 2010, NBC decided to pay O'Brien tens of millions of dollars to walk away from his program as Leno's late night replacement so that Leno, who had moved to a prime-time slot, could return to his late-night gig. O'Brien will land on his lanky feet and Leno is a comfortable lug of a guy. (4/8/10)

Jenny Jones is awfully cute but how many shows about breasts can one enjoy? Tabloid trash such as this is terrible and hopefully not the whole truth about America.

Tom Snyder is a very nice guy, but who cares about nice guys and their self-indulgent whimsies? Snyder is not dumb, but he clearly is the gee-whiz offspring of Jack Paar, nervous and uneasy and discomforting. While he is bright and experienced, his intellect is not sparkling and exudes too much La-La California for many New Yorkers.

The newest and freshest lateniter is Bill Maher and his "Politically Incorrect" program that follows "Nightline" on ABC-TV. Maher's forte is his insouciant twinkle and non-scabrous prodding. As impressive as his wit is, the program's format of four "completely different" (a la Monte Python) guests has worked extremely well. They generally make for a most incongruous, unruly gang that manages to be gracious to one another while inevitably blurting out some hilarious bon-mots. These well-behaved conversations are lively schmoozes that work fine at night, a time when many older Americans can vaguely remember was given over to late-night bull sessions in the college dorm, or local saloon, usually the best wasted time of our lives. Whoever programs/schedules Maher's guests is something of a genius and Maher's deft introduction of subjects and overall direction and pacing has been flawless so far. His commentaries are urbane and sophisticated and have bite, although his opening monologues are not always memorable. In the spring of 2002, ABC, unfortunately, decided to replace Mr. Maher's program reportedly because of remarks he made that suggested that the World Trade Center terrorists were braver than Americans firing missiles from afar. (5/28/02) In March, 2003, Mr. Maher resurfaced with a series, "Real Times with Bill Maher," on HBO. (4/3/03)

Vibe and the Keenan Ivory Wayans show have survived their first few months in New York at the 11PM time slot and have attracted a lot of "name" guests.  The hosts have considerable charm, but the programs are geared primarily to black audiences, which is fine, but these shows should not have to compete with both the newscasts and Charlie Rose, to say nothing of Leno and Letterman.  Talk about tough odds!  Sinbad has replaced the original host on Vibe and he and Wayans are very personable but a viewer can stressed out by all the band rigamarole and rap!  Wynans eventually was replaced by Magic Johnson, who tried hard and was pleasant, but his show was cancelled in August, 1998. Instead of cancelling such shows, they should just change their time so that one does not have such ridiculously stiff competition.

The bottom line: check out the guest on Rose, or the topic on Nightline first, then watch Leno for a bit and close with Maher, but always keep taped shows of the great master, Ernie Kovacs, on hand as a surreality check.

On September 29, 2004, NBC announced that it had signed Jay Leno to continue as host of the Tonight program for another five years and that he would then be succeeded by Conan O'Brien, who now has his own program following the Tonight show. Leno has consisted bested David Letterman in the ratings and has been an excellent host of the Tonight program, able to combine sassy political humor with silly self-deprecation and a congenial approach to interviews. Conan O'Brien has proven to be not a one-trick pony, but a pretty smart if not intellectual pony with a nice dollop of wildness. He will most likely do well on the Tonight program, which has too broad an audience for someone of the sharp wit and serious political concerns of Bill Maher, who has not faded into obscurity and survived with Broadway appearances and specials on HBO. (9/30/04)

The TV landscape has changed dramatically in recent years and cable now gives the networks serious competition, especially "Morning Joe," a three-hour program from 6 to 9 AM that is to morning television news programs what The New York Review of Books is to print journalism, a delightful sobering splash of intelligence. Its hosts, Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressmen, and Mika Bryzinski, juggle an amazingly impressive roster of regular guest panelists including Tina Brown, Patrick Buchanan, and the editors of Time, Newsweek and Politico and many leading national politicians. The program has some good fluff by Bill Geist but it is theb bright star of MSNBC whose roster also includes the very intelligent Chris Matthews and the provocative and witty Rachel Maddow.

CNN has some very fine journalists such as David Gergen, John King and Gloria Borger but its "best political team on television" routine is not always the best. (4/8/10)

Use the Search Box below to quickly look up articles at this site on specific artists, architects, authors, buildings and other subjects





Home Page of The City Review