Talkshows offer folks a chance to sink or swim

About halfway through the jaw-dropping train wreck that was the 1993 premiere of Fox’s “The Chevy Chase Show,” a friend called and shouted into the phone, “Omigod: Are you watching this?”

Chase’s latenight flameout was particularly memorable, but he’s hardly the only high-profile talent to be defeated by the talk format. Indeed, this eclectic roster has its own point guard (Magic Johnson), beloved morning host (Jane Pauley), pick of sitcom stars (Roseanne, Tony Danza, Megan Mullally), Wimbledon champ (John McEnroe), an Oscar winner (Whoopi Goldberg), business tycoons (Pat Croce), successful game-show hosts (Pat Sajak), advice gurus (Dr. Laura Schlesinger), and innumerable comics/sketch-variety players (Dennis Miller, Joan Rivers, Wayne Brady, Martin Short, Keenen Ivory Wayans, etc.).

In TV, talk is cheap (generally the most inexpensive way to fill time), but it isn’t easy — a fact programmers keep forgetting, either due to faulty memories or out of economic desperation.

Jimmy Fallon will soon test whether he has the right stuff to survive the latenight grind, replacing Conan O’Brien on NBC’s “Late Night” beginning in March. O’Brien is moving west to prepare for his close-up supplanting Jay Leno at “The Tonight Show,” except Leno isn’t going away after all, merely moving to 10 p.m.

Elsewhere, there’s a surplus of celebrities migrating from interviewee to interviewer, generally with less-than galvanizing results.

A&E’s biography-oriented network Bio, for example, will follow its William Shatner talk vehicle “Shatner’s Raw Nerve” — which is neither raw nor particularly nervy — with “The Chris Isaak Hour,” which bows Feb. 26 and showcases the singer alternately performing duets and chatting with musical guests.

Nobody expects a grilling in such a benign setting, but the lone news-flash that Isaak elicits from Trisha Yearwood in the opener is that Garth Brooks does his own laundry. And given that the cabler distributed a subsequent hour featuring Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens), one might think Isaak would at least have provided his guest an opportunity to address the controversial 20-year-old remarks that caused many to believe the guy who wrote “Peace Train” endorsed the fatwa against author Salman Rushdie.

Given the giant shadow that Johnny Carson still casts over latenight, he’s a logical candidate to try divining simple talk guidelines. So here are what I’d call the Carson Rules, often overlooked by the novice host:

  • Make the show at the desk (or in the chair). Ultimately, no amount of producing can make a talkshow hum — especially a five-day-a-week affair, where many of the best moments must invariably be spontaneous. A prime example would be David Letterman’s instant-classic encounter with Joaquin Phoenix, which couldn’t have been scripted.

  • Don’t rely on guests to carry things. Bookers might be able to front-load a week or two of big names, but the enduring quality over time is a hit-miss proposition. That means the hosts, finally, have to be bigger than whoever’s sitting opposite them.

  • Funny is good, but witty can be better. Hosts that over-reach for laughs can abruptly derail an interesting conversation. It’s possible to keep things lively without breaking the flow or dragging the spotlight off the guest.

    Don’t turn every topic back to yourself. This admonition proves unusually difficult for luminaries in other spheres. Witness the latest installment of CNBC’s “Conversations With Michael Eisner,” in which the former Disney CEO interrupted Stan Lee’s story about creating Spider-Man to reminisce about releasing “Arachnophobia” while running the studio. Personal anecdotes have their place, but a little self-indulgent reflection goes a long way.

  • Listen. This seems obvious but frequently isn’t to celebrity hosts, who — sort of like “Password” — can struggle with the protocols that surround giving or receiving questions. At times, Shatner and Eisner sound more enamored with their own musings than whatever guests have to offer. By contrast, it takes mental agility to absorb what’s being said, recognize a pounce-worthy line or story, and adapt on the fly.

  • Remember that non-celebrities might be watching. Another no-brainer easily ignored within the confines of chummy celebrity chat. Bottom line: Not everyone can relate to the inconvenience associated with parking your private jet.

The host who masters the Carson rules will probably be able to afford one.

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