The TV We Don't Talk About
By Traolach de Faoite | Feb 20 2017Traolach de Faoite takes a look at late night television at home and abroad.[br]LATE night television has been an American institution for decades. During the early era of television the late night programming block consisted of variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, similar to content that had been broadcast on radio. It took series like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson to invigorate the medium, and their format is still in use today. Now, with sites like YouTube reaching new heights of global popularity and prominence, the late night game has changed again.Despite not being discussed in the same way many scripted US television series would be, clips from American talk shows nonetheless appear on Irish websites and are shared by Irish people via social media. This has resulted in a certain familiarity with US talk shows in Ireland — it isn’t hard to find someone who knows who Conan O’Brien is, for example. However, the wide popularity of late night television contrasts with its lack of coverage.Most Irish viewers would probably have grown up with Irish or British talks shows such as The Late Late Show or The Graham Norton Show. Their inability to consistently book big name stars means Irish chat shows often feature guests who discuss serious issues. Poor examples of light entertainment, they instead may offer thought provoking insights on society. The best examples of this are the appearances of Blindboy Boat Club of the Rubberbandits on The Late Late Show: his perceptive comments on modern Ireland often generating much discussion the following day.
“This emphasis on personality and creating viral content reflects the dominance of YouTube, and indicates that late night hosts are cynically mimicking what young people watch....”British chat shows, on the other hand, follow America’s lead in focusing on humorous “interviews” with celebrities instead of serious discussions. The Graham Norton Show is the best and least of these—rather than taking centre stage like American hosts, Norton concedes the conversation and chemistry to his guests, who are interviewed round-table with drinks supplied. There is an anarchic approach to proceedings, with guests being shocked by each other’s stories, or how well Norton’s researchers have done their research.American talk shows feature an intense focus on the host, evidenced by the monologues they perform and their participation in skits and ongoing gags. Hosts like Jimmy Fallon and James Corden also have a tendency to play games or do challenges with their guests, pulling the focus towards their own entertainment brand.This emphasis on personality and creating viral content reflects the dominance of YouTube, and indicates that late night hosts are cynically mimicking what young people watch in an attempt to attract their attention. Instead what’s reflected is a similar sense that guests and hosts are merely performing, engaging in shallow mimicry for quick views and profit.Having actual film stars such as Tom Cruise completing YouTube challenges instead of internet stars does little to elevate such uninspired material. This problem is compounded in that, while these clips may draw thousands or even millions of views at times, this rarely translates into primetime viewership. YouTube videos are watched, laughed at, and then quickly forgotten.
“One is unlikely to see something like Miriam Margoyles talking about giving a blowjob to an American serviceman á la Graham Norton on an American talk show.”Interviews in US talk shows are unlike ones on this side of the Atlantic in that they are prepared in advance. This means guests know what subjects they are going to talk about, resulting in polished interviews that add to the falseness of proceedings and the idea that everyone is giving a performance. If audiences feel they are being lied to they quickly tune out, often seeking out the show’s competitors to fill the empty timeslot.Television networks are notorious for restricting the comments their host can make, and combined with these performative YouTube-inspired tropes, American talk shows have become almost irredeemably artificial. If all speech is pre-approved by both a celebrity and a US television network there is a limit to how controversial, poignant, or even interesting conversation can be.One is unlikely to see something like Miriam Margoyles talking about giving a blowjob to an American serviceman á la Graham Norton on an American talk show. Instead, they engage in a meek relationship with current affairs. This effort clashes with their desire to be fun-yet-inoffensive and makes for uncomfortable moments.Donald Trump’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon is a recent and egregious example of non-confrontational behaviour: Fallon affectionately rubbed the then-president-elect’s hair. This was seen by critics as the dangerous normalization of a dangerous man. However, this also led to a rare moment of discussion and publicity for the show, and in a cynical sense this may have been what Fallon needed to boost ratings.The artificiality of American talk shows seems to trap them in a middle ground. Network standards and over-preparation hinders their ability to address social issues or to provide good comedy. They can often be interesting or entertaining, but their artificial atmosphere means they rarely match the genuine sense of fun found in British equivalents, or make one think like Irish chat shows occasionally do. It’s likely that the modern American formula won’t last forever, or if it does, ratings will fall and another form of content will rise up to fill the gap.