Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tom Snyder – 1936-2007

I wanted to write this and get it posted sooner, but I've been having difficulty connecting to the Web courtesy of my McAfee Security Center. For reasons known only to it, it suddenly wouldn't let me connect with the Web: email? – fine, newsgroups? – great, online poker? – perfect, World Wide Web – verboten, ils ne pass pas, no frakkin' way.

This was unfortunate as I wanted to pay tribute to one of my favourite talk show hosts, Tom Snyder, who passed away of Leukemia. Others, notably Mark Evanier have mentioned Tom Snyder's facility as a TV News anchor, one of the last great "single" anchors in the business. Not living in Los Angeles, where Snyder did a lot of his local anchor work, I never saw that side of him. My blogging buddy Sam Johnson does mention him as an anchor in Savannah, although these seem to be second hand. I did hear stories about his adventures in local news after his Tomorrow show was cancelled by NBC, and one gets the impression that he didn't adjust well to working as part of an "anchor team." Or maybe it was just the jealousy of others that had them saying less than complimentary things about his abilities as a newscaster.

Snyder the newscaster wasn't my Tom Snyder. My Tom Snyder was the guy who hosted Tomorrow between 1973 and 1982, the guy who was given the timeslot after Letterman (by Letterman, who had a great appreciation for him) from 1995 to 1999. And my Tom Snyder was the guy who had a pioneering blog called Colortini.com (now long gone). My earliest Blogroll included a link to the site and it was there that we learned of the chronic lymphocytic leukemia that eventually took his life. This Snyder was a smart and savvy interviewer with a booming laugh and a willingness to talk to just about anyone.

Snyder was perfect for a University student working late into the night, which was how I first encountered him. This was late in the era of the original Tomorrow show when it was usually Tom and one or two guests – and of course Tom's then nearly ubiquitous cigarette – sitting opposite each other and talking. Snyder wasn't afraid to ask the hard hitting questions when they were called for, but most of the time Snyder maintained a conversational style without things degenerating into "puff-piece" questions. Probably his most famous interview was a prison interview with Charles Manson after which Snyder said that Manson was playing mind-games in prison, and knew exactly what he had done to be there. Tom didn't have a co-host, although author Nancy Friday was a frequent guest and at one point was a semi-regular contributor. He rarely had a studio audience during the original version of Tomorrow. It was intimate, and even when he had a comedian on it was seriously good TV.

The beginning of the end for Tomorrow came when Johnny Carson's show dropped from 90 minutes to an hour, at Carson's demand. For some reason NBC decided to expand Tomorrow to 90 minutes, add a studio audience as well as a co-host – gossip columnist Rona Barrett, who had been lured over to NBC with the promise of a big contract – whom he detested and engaged in a legendary feud with. The new show was dubbed Tomorrow Coast To Coast, and died a merciful death after just under two years. Watching the clip of Tom with Howard Cosell – with Frank Gifford trying very to stay out of the way – it's not hard to see why. He doesn't seem comfortable in the format.

I didn't see Tom's CNBC show or listen to his ABC Radio show that he did with Elliott Forrest but I was a total devotee of The Late Late Show which he did on CBS. It was different from the Tomorrow Show; more in the style of what Larry King (with whom Snyder had a celebrated feud, although the reasons were never totally clear) used to do. There were callers, although they weren't the dominant part of the format. What dominated was what David Letterman called in the clip that follows "the simple art of reasonable conversation." I loved The Late Late Show and watched virtually every episode. Tom was my first exposure to Molly Ivins and the first time I heard anyone call George W. Bush "Shrub" – as Ivins put it "because he's a little Bush." Harlan Ellison was another frequent guest. It was my first exposure to Jon Stewart as a "talking head" – I'd previously seen him as an actor/comedian but he was also an occasional guest and frequent replacement for Tom when he was ill or on vacation, as was Bonnie Hunt. Annual features included a display of Lionel Trains on set at Christmas (Tom was a collector and once had Neil Young on to talk about Young's ownership of the company) and a live broadcast after the Oscars that usually featured Gene Siskel & Roger Ebert, and Bonnie Hunt. In the last year or two of the show that was

A frequent guest was Robert Blake. Tom would bring Blake on and frequently he'd do the entire hour, talking about whatever he felt like. One night Blake spent the entire hour begging a woman with whom he had been in a relationship to come back to him – she didn't. Watching Blake on The Late Late Show, sitting on the edge of his chair waving a (usually) unlit cigarette was often a study in bipolar behaviour played out on our TV screen. Years later, after Blake had been accused and found not guilty of killing his wife Bonnie Lee Bakley (who Blake met after Tom stopped doing The Late Late Show) Snyder wrote in his blog that having known and experienced Robert Blake, he believed that Blake was a killer.

I think I speak for a lot of Tom's fans when I say that I was sad to see Tom Snyder leave The Late Late Show and even sadder to see him replaced, not with Bonnie Hunt or Jon Stewart in a continuation of what Tom had done, but by Craig Kilborn doing a pale imitation of Letterman and Leno, which – with due respect – is really an imitation of Johnny Carson (and in Leno's case in particular, a pretty poor one). When Tom Snyder left the air for good, an era epitomized by Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, and Tom Snyder on major network TV came to a close.

Following are a couple of YouTube videos. First is a tribute that Conan O'Brien did, featuring clips from some of Tom's most famous interviews from the Tomorrow Show, including Manson, Elton John, Johnny Rotten, Bono (and The Edge though he doesn't say a word), Muhamed Ali, and finally Howard Cosell. The second clip is the final portion of an interview that Tom did with his replacement at NBC and his boss at CBS, David Letterman. So as Tom would say, "Fire up the colortinis and watch the pictures as they fly through the air." And when you do, spare a few moments to remember our friend who we never met, Tom Snyder.

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