When did US chat shows become US sketch shows? Where’s the chat?
When fop-next-door Hugh Grant was caught in flagrante with a Los Angeles prostitute in 1995, his career-saving strategy was to go on Jay Leno's Tonight Show and frankly discuss the indiscretion. In a heartbeat the wavy-haired actor was transformed in the public eye from closet sleaze to broadly upstanding chap whose baser instincts briefly – but only briefly – got the better of him. Grant's Hollywood future was rescued, Leno's ratings blasted into high orbit, viewers got to see a real-life drama play out before their eyes. Everyone was a winner.
Were the same incident to occur today and Grant to appear on the couch of Leno's successor Jimmy Fallon, he would doubtless have to deliver his mea culpa via a 'hilarious' skit, inevitably featuring Fallon's annoying dancing bear, a random Bruce Springsteen impersonation from the host and a context-free cameo from Michelle Obama/Miley Cyrus/ Justin Timberlake.
Such is the state of the American talk show in 2015, a forum where 'talk' is bottom of the agenda and the true goal is a viral YouTube hit.
This was made painfully clear earlier in the week with Helen Mirren's turn on Fallon. Here one of the great actresses of her generation was reduced to breathing helium and introducing Americans to such chucklesome British-isms as 'spotted dick' in a funny voice.
There was no interview, per se: just one long gag-reel, the overbearing Fallon more interested in stirring the comedy pot than offering any insights into Mirren's achievements in life and on screen.
Helen-does-helium came on the heels of new boy James Corden's arrival on the Late Late Show (no, not that one). A stranger in a strange land, the amiable Brit was under pressure to land with a splash (early test audiences were reportedly luke-warm about his 'funny accent').
Did he do this by booking provocative guests with interesting thoughts to share? Of course not – instead, he roped Tom Hanks into a sequence in which the pair shambolically recreated all of Hanks movies (even the ones Hanks had apparently forgotten) in eight minutes.
The results were funny (ish) – but mostly because Hanks was an endlessly good sport, genuinely capable of laughing at himself (as opposed to the synthetic Hollywood approximation of same). And yet, how depressing that a potentially compelling interviewee was instead reduced to this sort of low-budget prat-falling.
With the piece gaining 11.5 million YouTube hits and rising, Corden could no doubt not care less what critics think. He has made his mark on US television – an achievement doubled down on with a (less funny) segment in which he and David Beckham pose in their briefs (the comedy element was apparently the responsibility of Cordon's man-boobs – to be fair, they appeared up for the challenge).
We should not of course deceive ourselves that this pursuit of the viral mother-load is in earth-shattering contrast to what went before. From their inception, American chat shows have been about comedy as much as about conversation.
Through the sixties and seventies, audiences tuned into the original Tonight Show for Johnny Carson's monologues, not his joshing with Truman Capote and Angie Dickinson. Leno, for his part, was notorious for gazing over the shoulders of his interviewees, visibly tuning out having delivered his opening rat-tat-tat of one-liners.
Yet there were still moments that stood out. An irascible Eddie Murphy's car-crash (from the perspective of the bewildered Carson) on the Tonight Show in 1986, the aforementioned Grant interview.
Lately, though, talk shows – whether fronted by Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman or their plethora of soundalikes and wannabes – have been ruthlessly dumbed down to free-wheeling sketch-athons, where the target audience is tomorrow's YouTube browser, not today's television viewer.
Such an approach has, admittedly, yielded occasional comedic nuggets – with the proviso that, to European sensibilities, the joshing can have the whiff of a frat party jape taken to excess (Fallon's Neil Young impersonation in uncanny – but is it funny?).
Tellingly, those searching American television for intelligent conversation are more likely to tune into Comedy Central, where they can watch the Daily Show or, recently, Larry Wilmore's Nightly Show (with its 20 minute exchanges about the vaccination panic and the exigencies of a manned mission to Mars).
Here, then, is the ultimate irony. For smart late night American TV, your only option is a comedy channel. Although, even here, the trends seem ominous.
Stephen Colbert recently packed up his Comedy Central Fox news satire The Colbert Report and is on his way to CBS where he will…take over from Letterman. In other words, this sharp, savvy commentator is to be inevitably reduced to just another ringmaster in a circus where viral is god and sophisticated entertainment a rapidly vanishing memory.