I know, he's dead. But I'm thinking about what his philosophy of television might bring to the writer-struck medium right now, especially for the late-night talk-show hosts who are Allen's heirs.
Then again, I saw Jon Stewart back on his game Tuesday night, and wondered if this whole idea was really "Naah." More after the jump ...
I started thinking about the Steve Allen scenario while looking at my recording of Monday's Conan O'Brien show. Conan is getting some good notices for his efforts without writers, and Monday's show was all right. A bit based on items in the NBC Store was funny if a bit overlong. And in the interview segments, Conan seemed completely engaged -- pretty much wired by the stimulation of a conversation that, even with notes and (I'm figuring) a pre-interview, still felt as if it could go anywhere.
I then went back and looked at Craig Ferguson's first show since the strike began. Not very good, and Craig can seem nuts. (I also think he's right about the resemblance to Liza Minnelli.) And this with writers! But the show also seemed ready to try almost anything, including sketches and weird Ferguson monologues in lieu of guests.
At this point, let me bring Steve Allen back from the grave, courtesy of his book "Hi-Ho, Steverino," although he made this point plenty of other times, including in an interview I did with him in the early '90s.
"I indeed did a talk show," Allen said, "but it's not correct to describe 'Tonight' during ny three-and-a-half years as host ... as essentiallya talk show. It was something much more creaitve -- an experimental TV laboratory. One night we'd book, say, the Count Basie band and let them do twenty-five minutes of music. The next evening our show might be structured in the form of a debate ...; on other occasions, we might present a full-fledged, thirty-minute drama, ad-lib comedy routines in the street, or do exciting remote telecasts from Hollywood, Miami, Chicago, or Niagara Falls."
Allen also notes that he did single-guest shows (with Fred Allen among others) and on another show ended up singing "Home on the Range" with Carl Sandburg and the actor Charles Coburn.
In other words -- and I mean this in the best possible way -- Allen did a lot of messing around.
Right now, there seems to be a big opportunity for messing around. Conan, to be sure, has always had some of that, and a bit like the German disco light show could easily fit into the pre-strike Conan telecasts. Ferguson, for that matter, had his writers back when I watched him. But I think there was still a feeling at the show that it was a good time to mess around.
So the biggest mistake that the late-night hosts might make right now, with or without writers, is to try to replicate their old formulas in some fashion. Instead, this is the time to break out of the formula and to do so enthusiastically. Look at what the People's Choice Awards did last night -- as Queen Latifah said, "a little different from last time." And I won't pretend that what they tried actually worked. It took the spontaneity and the potentional for surprise out of the show, and leaned heavily on clips. But it was an attempt to do an awards show outside of the traditional format.
So should programmers use the strike as a reason to blow things up? It would be interesting to see them try. But, as I said, the People's Choice Awards format wasn't all that good. And then there's Jon Stewart.
In a previous post I argued that his show had a lot of problems on Monday night. Tuesday was a refreshing, smart, funny return to the sort of political commentary and poking at authority that the show does best. The monologue had more bite. And Stewart's interview of conservative author David Frum was classic, Stewart ripping up the overmatched Frum in very funny, but pointed fashion.
Frum works for Giuliani, which not only gave Stewart an opening for another joke about Giuliiani's use of 9/11 (and I loved Stewart's earlier reaction to the Giuliani-on-Hillary's-emotions clip.) But the best moment may have been when Stewart argued that fringe candidate Ron Paul was the most conservative candidate in a party that claims to be conservative.
"He's one of those people, the more you learn about him, the more disturbing a personality he becomes," Frum said.
"You should check into your guy," Stewart replied.
And, gleefully: "My brain's not on strike, brother!" And proved it later with the "President Homer" line.
So is Stewart demonstrating that the old formats are fine once people get back in their comfort zones? Probably. But that doesn't mean occasional daring is called for. Opportunities for such wholesale change come rarely. The last time I can remember in late-night was after 9/11, when the talk-show hosts were trying to figure out how to do their shows and deal with the immensity of that event. But, soon enough, it was back to the old way of doing business. And once the strike is over, collective amnesia may come fairly quickly.
Unless, of course, in this window, people see a new way of doing things that actually works. And the best way to find that is to just mess around.