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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Static From the Geek-In-Chief: Hey Now!

I’m not sure if it was Johnny Carson’s passing this week that got me to thinking. Maybe it’s because I just revisited the brilliant first season of The Larry Sanders Show on DVD. Or maybe I’m just desperate for a topic for this week’s column.

But one thing has become abundantly clear: the talk show sidekick is a dying breed.

Sure, the actual value of the second banana has always been dubious. As a viewer, I always thought: “I don’t need a talentless chortle machine telling me when to laugh.” (No, they have laugh tracks for that.) And strangely, talk shows seemed to benefit from them: whether it was the wooden, borderline drunken agreement of an Ed McMahon, or the partner-in-crime tee-hee-heeing of an Andy Richter, their mere presence added a little somethin' somethin' to a pretty stiff format.

These days, few talk shows have full-fledged sidekicks. Oh sure, Dave has his Paul, and Jay has his Kevin. But bandleaders don’t really count- they have more important duties to perform then laughing moronically at a lame Paris Hilton joke.

Historically, plenty of successful hosts have done just fine without true sidekicks, including Ellen, Rosie, and the legendary Merv Griffin. That said, hiring a couch jockey does not guarantee success: having Dan Miller ride shotgun with Pat Sajak on PBS sure didn’t help him any. I'm fairly certain Chevy was screwed, sidekick or not. And I’d loathe Leno’s insipid Tonight Show no matter who sat beside him.

Recent talk shows have attempted resuscitating the sidekick role to little avail. Ereka Vetrini was a full-fledged sidekick when The Tony Danza show premiered; now, she’s had her airtime slashed and is relegated strictly to being the show’s official Plinko-chip dropper. And John Fuselgang caddied on the recently axed McEnroe, but that doesn’t really count because nobody even knew the show existed. Hardly encouraging results for future wannabe second bananas.

As Jeffrey Tambor’s dead-on parody Hank Kingsley on Sanders showed, there used to be a spot for almost every entertainer in Hollywood, no matter how lame, witless, and untalented. That spot was as a couch-riding hack. Now, those performers, the sidekicks of the world, are being eliminated. Phased out. Downsized. And an entire era of television goes with them.

So this week, as we remember Johnny Carson, let’s also not forget our beloved sidekicks, past and present, and the service they’ve given us. And Ed, don’t worry: I’m sure Johnny’s saving you a spot on his couch.

Static From The Geek In Chief airs every Wednesday on TVGeekSpeak.com.

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