What the Hell is Alessandra Stanley Talking About?

Yes, I know, everyone who reads TV criticism thinks this occasionally. Still — and chalk this up perhaps to Daylight Savings Time — her latest piece for the New York Times’ Week in Review section, “The Vanishing Sidekick,” made me wonder if one glass of red wine Saturday had somehow left me with Sunday-morning hallucinations.

In discussing Jimmy Fallon’s decision to do without a sidekick and Conan O’Brien’s announcement that he would bring back Andy Richter, Stanley’s theorizing loosely connected Ed McMahon, Cardinal Richelieu, Tonto, the sitcom character Rhoda, Batman and Robin, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, and Chester from “Gunsmoke.” Then she placed part of the blame for the disappearance of sidekicks on Dick Cheney, which is where outfits like the Times get slapped around for veering out of their lanes to exhibit liberal bias.

Stanley’s tongue was obviously pressed in her cheek for much of the piece, but even so, there were some casual asides that bring to mind the periodic charge that the New York Times’ primary TV critic can be sloppy — like saying that Jon Stewart shuns sidekicks, when he features multiple “correspondents” on his Comedy Central show, many of whom have gone on to bigger and better things.

And there, actually, is the central point behind her premise, which Stanley for the most part missed: Latenight hosts have mostly gone without sidekicks since Johnny Carson because few of them have been secure enough to risk sharing the spotlight with someone else. It’s also why they forgo guest hosts. Carson knew the job was his. Everyone that has followed him has acted like they’re just renting the chair, no matter how successful they are. On that score, at least, give someone like Keith Olbermann credit, inasmuch as he championed Rachel Maddow as a fill-in host and then pushed for her to get her own program. (For more on Maddow, see my Variety colleague Ted Johnson’s profile.)

Dick Cheney did a lot of questionable stuff, but I’d cut him some slack on the fact that after the bruising succession battle for Carson’s crown, Letterman, Leno and most other comics have spent their careers looking over their shoulders.

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