Monday, July 30, 2007

Requiem for a Heavyweight Broadcaster

Tom Snyder as he appeared in a bit part in "A Friend in Need," a 1961 episode of THE RIFLEMAN. He had two lines.

I was very sorry to read about Tom Snyder's death yesterday at the age of 71, from leukemia. As a constant viewer of his NBC late-night talk show TOMORROW WITH TOM SNYDER (1975-81) and a frequent viewer of his post-Letterman series on CBS, THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH TOM SNYDER (1995-98), I feel as though I shared a big part of my life with him, but that's not exactly true. He shared a big part of his life with me and anyone else thoughtful enough to tune in. Few television hosts were as forthcoming about themselves as Tom Snyder. He would talk "Mother Snyder" when it was her birthday or if she wasn't feeling well, about the joys and woes of raising a teenage daughter, about his problems with the networks, and he would even make on-air references to his experiences with smoking pot or about the times when he tuned into SCREW editor Al Goldstein's public access porn show.
Talk about a box of chocolates. With TOMORROW and Tom Snyder, you never knew what you were going to get. The theme music he chose for the program was probably a clue to the real Tom: Barry White's "Love Theme" -- romantic schmaltzy disco music that was equal parts cheesy and classy. Tom could either be very cool, a complete jerk, and most winningly, he could often be seen vulnerably and forthcomingly trying to navigate a through-line between the two. On the evening that Barry White himself appeared on the show, it was like the Pope had deigned to give him audience. And Snyder gave him the serious attentive interview that I doubt ROLLING STONE ever did.

"Got it. It's not a band, it's a company. It's not a concert, it's a gig." "Humour me..." "Not for long."

Cutting-edge guests didn't necessarily guarantee a cutting-edge interview; his legendary sit-down with John Lydon and Keith Levene of Public Image Limited is a classic example of "failure to communicate," and I can also well remember a joint appearance by James Brown and football great Jim Brown, who apparently showed up at the studio one evening unannounced, requesting airtime on TOMORROW to discuss solutions to the problems facing black youth... in which it quickly transpired that the two JBs really had nothing to offer except that more young black people should look up to role models like them. It turned out to be a fairly bare-faced, smug-assed ego stroke that left Tom so baffled that he spent the next on-air segment scratching his head over why the interview hadn't worked. Very candid, very brave -- and it momentarily turned galling television into great television.

I've written here before about what TOMORROW's great interviews with Sterling Hayden meant to me. But I can also remember seeing a round-table discussion between Snyder and various Russ Meyer stars, including Uschi Digart, to this day the only interview I've ever seen with her. She came across as very smart and business-savvy. I'll never forget Snyder's incredulous comment "So what you're actually saying is that, on a Meyer set, there's no actual..." (he fumbled for a word) "... balling?" His choice of word somehow rooted his question at once and forever in the 1970s. Tom often had trouble with finding the right word for that particular act on national television. On another occasion, he started a show by telling an off-color joke after warning viewers that he couldn't use the word that made that joke so funny. He proceeded to tell it, and to the audible amusement of the stagehands, he sat flustered at his inability to say what he wanted to say. Then he said, "You know, the irony is that I can't say the word, but I can spell it backwards as much as I want. KCUF! KCUF! KCUF!" I've often wondered if he got his wrist slapped over that, the next day. His lusty laugh had an appreciation of the ribald. Another case in point is Grace Slick's first appearance on THE LATE LATE SHOW, when she referred to the crux of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal with the phrase "polishing a knob." Snyder smiled at the former psychedelic rock goddess with an ever-widening Cheshire grin before saying, "You know... I like you."
Which brings us to another of Tom's great TOMORROW moments, and perhaps the one that most crystallizes his value as a broadcaster. There was a night when he interviewed actress Liv Ullmann, I believe on the occasion of the release of Ingmar Bergman's SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. (Yes, I've heard about Bergman's passing, but that will have to be another topic for another time.) Throughout the interview, there blossomed something very strange in the communication between interviewer and interviewee that was as quizzical as it was compelling to watch. They seemed to be flirting with one another but, then again, they weren't. The next night, Tom opened the show by confessing that, during the previous night's interview with Ms. Ullmann, he had felt a powerful erotic pull that, he was convinced, was being reciprocated and teased on the air. The interview, from his perspective, had been great foreplay. After the show, a production associate alerted him that Ms. Ullmann and her entourage were going to the elevators to leave, and he literally ran after her. Catching the actress just as the doors were closing, he took her aside and explained that he was under the impression that they'd shared what is now known as "a moment." Ullmann then very politely and tactfully thanked him for his flattering interest but said that he must have misinterpreted something in her manner.
He certainly didn't have to discuss such a personal story on the air, but stories like this helped to turn both of Tom Snyder's shows into something conspicuously more than a nightly talk show; they were, in a sense, personality-driven serials in which the interviews were central yet also incidental. There's an element of that in LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN, but in that setting, it's show-biz served with an unhealthy dollop of irony. With Snyder, you always got the reality of Tom Snyder at that moment -- good, bad, smart, stupid, curious, clueless, but ceaselessly watchable -- and his passing drops a precious digit from the ranks of a most endangered species.
Tonight, let's all raise a Colortini in his honor and watch the happy memories as they fly through the air.

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