Monday, July 30, 2007

Tom Snyder, R.I.P.

By Mitchell

Before there was Charlie Rose, there was Tom Snyder.

Tom Synder, like Dick Cavett, provided an adult alternative to Johnny Carson. Whereas Carson was content to entertain and amuse his audience (a job at which he was brilliant), Tom Snyder often tried to provide something more. Snyder was host of "The Tomorrow Show," the program which followed Carson in the 70s. At the outset it ran for one hour, from 1:00 – 2:00 a.m. in the East. Seated against a primarily black backdrop, without a studio audience, Snyder would go one-on-one with a single guest in interviews which would often run for the entire hour. They could be penetrating or frivolous, but there was always something intimate about these interviews, as if Snyder and his guest were having their conversation in your living room, with you as

Unencumbered by an audience in the studio, Snyder would often break down the barrier between himself and the viewers at home, speaking directly to them, sharing his infectious laugh with them, not afraid to try something absurd (here I recall “Sink the Titanic” night) or different (his six-hour mini-marathon on July 3-4, 1975, to commemorate the start of the year-long bicentennial celebration). Synder was, by turns, egocentric, engaging, frustrating, fascinating, pompous and self-effacing, but he was seldom boring. (Dan Aykroyd’s parody of him on the early SNL was always a favorite.) He was a frequent target of critics, and wasn’t afraid to fire back.

Besides being a talk-show host, Snyder was also a newsman, anchoring the local news in LA before moving to NBC, where he often filled in on the nightly news and inaugurated the prime-time “newsbrief” that provided, in the pre-CNN days, an update on the headlines since the evening news.

Snyder’s downfall began in 1980, when Carson cut back to an hour from 90 minutes. NBC sought to fill the gap by adding 30 minutes to Snyder’s show and, more disastrously, adding Rona Barrett as co-host of what was now known as “Tomorrow Coast-to-Coast.” The move was an utter failure – there was absolutely no positive chemistry between Snyder and Barrett – and the show never recovered, eventually being replaced by David Letterman.

That appeared to be the end of Tom Snyder, and many were glad of it, having sickened of his grating personality. But Snyder was not quite done yet, returning to host an overnight radio show before coming back to television with a Tomorrow-like show on CNBC. Eventually, he made a triumphant comeback on CBS in 1995 as Letterman’s hand-picked choice to host the "Late Late Show" that followed Letterman. Snyder held down the slot for three years before leaving, this time having the last laugh on his critics.

In those pre-PC 70s, Synder was invariably surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke during his interviews, and one would not have been surprised to hear that it was lung cancer that had finally done what the networks couldn’t quite accomplish. However, it was instead chronic lymphocytic leukemia which claimed him on Sunday, at the age of 71, a true television original.

2 comments:

  1. Mitchell: I was wondering (hoping) you would have something to say about Tom Snyder and Ingmar Bergman. I'm surprised you posted BOTH so quickly. I'm happy you did, too.

    I am a HUGE Tom Snyder fan, God bless his soul. I'm just old enough to remember his TV show. I used to listen to his overnight radio program all the time. He was direct and, frequently, surly but he made no apologies for it. Very literate man. Great interviewer. He's been off the air for quite a while but I still miss him.

    I wish there were more interviewers like him around. He focused on the SUBJECT, not himself, a quality very absent in most interviewers these days.

    He was afraid of nothing and no one. He'd interview anybody. I look back on some of his interview subjects: both "highbrow" and "low". He'd interview anyone that he felt was interesting or had something to say: even if we didn't like it.

    I think he, often, had his finger on the pulse of what society found intriquing.

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  2. Cathy,

    Well, timing is everything. I saw the Bergman notice on the BBC news this morning before going to work, and heard the Snyder news on NPR's 8:00 update.

    But really, in both cases, the ability to put up something quickly is a testament to these two men, when it's so easy for thoughts to come to mind.

    Snyder was talk TV for adults. I saw another blogger, in discussing Cavett, say that Carson's show was a remnant of the daytime talkers (partially true; when you contrast Carson and Paar you see that Jack really was more geared toward the late-night crowd), whereas Cavett (and Snyder, I would contend) were the friends who stayed long after the other dinner guests had left, and invited you to sit in for the conversation.

    Back in those days it was a big deal to stay up until 1 a.m. watching TV, when many stations were signing off, and at that hour TV was definitely thought to be for grown-ups.

    It's a pity we don't really have any shows like "Tomorrow," or hosts like Tom Snyder.

    I'm glad you liked him as well. Nice comments!

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