S U C K

"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 August 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Tommy Davidson Has Left the Building

 

[Ever wonder why you can't smell yourself?]

When Comedy Central paired

will-smirk-for-money couch

accent Adam Carolla with

peripheral sass-boy Jimmy Kimmel

on The Man Show, we hardly

noticed the implications. After

stumbling across The Chimp

Channel on TBS, we began to

sense a trend of sorts. But as

stricken as we were by the

spectacle of a half-dozen

monkeys mugging like slightly

hairier Alec Baldwins in

SNL-guest mode, we couldn't

actually articulate what that

trend was. Upon watching Happy

Hour, the USA Network's

semi-covert exercise in

saturation Zappa deployment, it

all became strikingly clear.

TV's ever-expanding channelscape

has grown so vast that

cathode-utility men like George

W. Heinlein and Ahmet Zappa, who

in previous decades would have

been relegated to eternal

sidekick status, now receive

their own starring vehicles. As

one-time sidekicks ascend to

alpha status, the signals for

television's fragile food chain

are, to say the least,

troubling.

 

Now, don't misunderstand us: We

love these new shows. True, The

Chimp Channel would be far more

compelling if TBS had stuck to

its core competencies and given

us chimp wrestling instead of

chimp media satire. But even if

The Chimp Channel's uninspired

parodies of shows like Ally

McBeal and The X-Files seem

unlikely to make anyone forget,

say, Mad TV, that hardly

mitigates the happy

inevitability that someday soon

Chimp Channel second-banana-eater

Timmy the intern will take his

place alongside other

entertainment-industry flotsam on

Happy Hour.

 

[Anyone know whatever happened to Chocolate/Strawberry Cow Cereal? email me.felipe@wired.com]

Indeed, can't you just picture

the semi-talented simian trading

quips with the likes of has-been

has-been Danny Bonaduce and Playboy

Mansion party favor Heather Kozar?

If you can't, then you obviously

haven't experienced the giddy

spectacle that can result when

underutilized exhibitionists

leap onto tables to shake their

C-list asses and Ahmet Zappa

uses his Tourette's Lite charm

to coax faded wallflowers

through tuneless, TelePrompTed

sing-alongs. Happy Hour is like

public access with production

values and the occasional flash

of real talent. And while it may

be willfully uneven, it features

a winning, less malevolent

version of the revealing

celebrity spontaneity that makes

The Howard Stern Show so

watchable.

 

The King of All Media is a

reference point for The Man

Show too: Co-hosts Carolla and

Kimmel are essentially Stern for

the thinking mook. They turn

fart jokes and breast-ogling

into ingeniously moronic bits

that suggest a deadpan

knowingness without completely

befuddling the frat demographic:

If you want to acknowledge the

self-satire that accompanies the

act of watching women jumping on

trampolines you can, but no such

awareness is required to enjoy

the exhibition. In other words,

The Man Show is alternative

comedy in the same way that

early-'90s stadium rockers like

Pearl Jam were alternative music

— but that's OK because,

frankly, we were getting

nostalgic for punch lines.

 

Unfortunately, the somewhat

surprising adequacy of Happy

Hour and The Man Show spells

trouble for sidekicks. While

neither show has yet to emerge as

cable's version of a breakout

hit, their hosts have performed

well enough to fail upward if it

comes to that. That's great for

them, of course, but what

happens to the treasured,

time-honored role of the

knee-slapping couch buddy when

all the candidates can get shows

of their own? In the wake of

sidekick Andy Richter's

announcement that he will be

departing Late Night with Conan

O'Brien next spring, the show's

producer suggested to Variety

that it might not be possible to

find a suitable replacement.

Like the giant panda bear and

the Dismal Swamp shrew, the

sidekick is now an endangered

species, another victim of

so-called progress.

 

[It doesn't matter if it's good or bad...as long as it makes you feel something]

But say you've never been

partial to craven head-bobbing

and indiscriminate glad-handing.

Should you even bother to lament

the sidekick's demise? Well, you

should if you care about TV in

general. Because in the same way

that frog populations mirror the

overall health of a particular

ecosystem, the sidekick

population indicates the overall

well-being of the vast

wasteland. In the '60s, for

example, when The Tonight Show

was NBC's most reliable cash cow

and the leading TV shows

routinely drew Nielsen ratings

of 30 and higher, sidekicks were

big, strapping, vital specimens.

The six-foot, four-inch Ed

McMahon was the archetype, a

robust, Falstaffian giant who

towered over the elfin Johnny

Carson but expressed his brute

strength only in the form of

unswerving loyalty and rapt

attention, just like Carson's

audience.

 

Alas, in the new world order,

audiences are no longer so

docile, and hosts no longer so

powerful. In an effort to

convince restless, fickle

viewers that host is synonymous

with "most," some would-be

Johnnys still use sidekicks as

their servile audience proxies.

But even these mildly deluded

optimists know there's a limit

to how much the skeptical masses

will buy, and thus they choose

the most infirm, easily

manageable cretins available.

 

A merry dwarf and a craggy drunk

so punchy he makes Ed McMahon

look like Charles Atlas support

The Man Show's Carolla and

Kimmel. Frances Kuyper, an

80-year-old woman whose prior

broadcasting experience

consisted of issuing frosting

tips to cake museum visitors now

serves as Howie Mandel's

sidekick. Glenn Humplik attends

to Tom Green with all the placid

self-loathing of a battered wife

who will never, ever, really

strike back. Underachiever Jon

Stewart and overachiever Craig

Kilborn both seem to recognize

that hiring any sidekick at all

— midget, old lady, punching

bag, cardboard cutout of Tim

Conway, whatever — would

overstate their power.

 

[ivy's scared of linolium]

That is to say, it's not just

the sidekick whose existence is

tenuous. While hosts appear to

be flourishing in the new

expanded market, they're really

just as vulnerable as their

rapidly disappearing toadies. If

we, the impossible-to-satisfy

audience, are always demanding

more shows and a greater role

for ourselves in them and don't

change our greedy, short-sighted

ways, we may soon find ourselves

with no hosts left at all. Or at

least none worth watching. Over

the last few decades, new media

savants like Phil Donahue

capitalized on our desire to be

a part of the action,

sacrificing sidekicks in the

name of audience participation.

And now post-Oprah entities like

The View and even Happy Hour

and The Man Show are replacing

old-wave, top-down hosts with

community-inspiring welcoming

committees.

 

But is this really what we want?

It may seem compelling on a

conceptual level, but to see how

the idea plays out in full

flower, simply watch The X

Show, where four everydudes with

less collective star power than

an MTV Wanna Be a VJ

second-runner-up hold court each

night. Watch them slouch on

couches in their nipple-

enhanced studio. Listen to them

uh-huh their way through the

sort of freestyle tag-team

interviews that have previously

been confined to Internet chat

sites. Wonder if they won a

Maxim sweepstakes to get this

gig. Conclude that they're the

first-ever "celebrities" who

Happy Hour would probably refuse

as guests. Toast the death of

mass media. Hail the ascension

of interactivity with all the

unbridled fervor of a late-'90s

Michael Kinsley. Click the

remote.

 
courtesy of Huck
 
 
 
 
 
 



[Purchase the Suck Book here]